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Robert J Maurer Ph.D.
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

Why We All Just Need a Little Attention

A powerful need we ignore at great cost.

“Mommy, Daddy, look at me!”

We have all heard this plea from children on the playground or in our own homes, and we don't consider it inappropriate or unhealthy. But if an adult spoke the same words, our response would likely be very different.

Source: sanjagrujic/Shutterstock

We take for granted that children require attention. Many a weary parent comes home at night, digging deep inside to find the energy they aren’t sure they have in order to give their little ones the affection they require. But what happens to this need as we grow and become adults? The answer: Nothing changes. The basic human need for attention remains, although sadly, most adults ignore this in both themselves and others.

As humans, we have pain receptors to remind us to attend to nearly every biological need. In response, we have developed rituals to assure that our needs are met. We have rituals for eating and sleeping, and even a special room for elimination. We tend to become uncomfortable when our routines are broken, causing us to question whether or not our needs will be met. Have you ever been stuck in a traffic jam needing to pee? Your body quickly becomes very conversational.

So if pain receptors cue us to consistently meet our most fundamental needs, then where is our receptor for attention? There isn’t one. The best guess as to why is that we probably didn’t need one throughout our long history as hunter-gatherers. Most tribes that crossed the savannah were likely small enough to ensure that everybody knew everyone else. Being in the constant presence of one another, individuals could easily discern when others required attention, so help and support were offered naturally. In today’s world, we are much more separate from each other, even in our own homes. But our bodies were not designed to live in walled-off rooms where even an unexpected knock on the door can be perceived as an intrusion.

What, then, is the definition of attention? George Bernard Shaw stated, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” In other words, it takes love to give and receive energy from another human being. Research on the human need for attention is plentiful and quite compelling. People who feel well-connected to others experience lower rates of cardiac disease and are more likely to survive after a heart attack; employees who feel appreciated by their supervisors are more productive and healthier.

Attention is not only an essential component for our physical health, it is crucial to all of our closest relationships. John Gottman has investigated predictors of romantic success for over 20 years. What makes his work so extraordinary is that he can predict with over 90 percent accuracy the likelihood that a marriage will last beyond the fourth year based on two key predictors—how couples deal with conflict, and how they meet the need for attention.

It makes sense that attention and conflict show up in the same paradigm. Challenging issues will naturally arise between two people in any close relationship. However, if a lot of positive attention is bandied back and forth as well, both parties will be more eager to resolve their issues to get back to the good stuff. On the other hand, for those who don’t experience ease in giving or receiving positive attention, conflict may take on an unnecessary intensity, with the body wanting to take advantage of the only opportunity to get its need for attention met. This can occur no matter how painful or toxic the attention may be.

The second predictor of relationship success is the amount and type of attention partners share with one another. In successful couples, the daily ratio of positive to negative attention is 5:1 on days when the relationship isn’t going well, and 20:1 on the days it thrives. Couples heading for divorce demonstrated a ratio of 1:1. How does one achieve the 20:1 ratio in a relationship? It's not through a multitude of candlelight dinners, vacations, and gifts, or a series of frequent, hefty raises. This would be physically and financially impossible.

Instead, it is the small moments that count. When your partner calls you during the day, does your voice light up when you realize who's on the line, or does your tone of voice imply that they are interrupting more important tasks? When an employee or colleague walks through the door, do you put down the phone or close the computer to give them your full attention? If your child had a dentist appointment or was facing a challenge with a friend, do you remember to ask how things went? It is these small, non-trivial moments of attention—these positive rituals and routines we establish—that turn out to be the most powerful predictors of relationship success.

In our next post, we will explore the different types of attention, how to determine what type you and others prefer, and how certain types of attention may actually be harmful to children and adults.

About the Author
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a professor at UCLA, is the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at UCLA.

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