Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Commodifying Your Attention: The Informavore Perspective

How human attention and behaviors feed a bigger informavore.

From a scientific perspective, attention in humans relies on mechanisms that influence the selection of information from competing sources (perceptual or cognitive) in a way that allows us to use this information. This can help us complete a task, hold a conversation, watch a movie, and so much more. Given that our perceptual systems process such large quantities of information, most of it not entering our conscious experience, it is a rather outstanding feat that we can operate in such a focused way and accomplish a variety of complex tasks.

Well, most of the time.

Distraction is something we are all familiar with. Sitting down to write a blog post, for example, can take many attempts that are thwarted by the sudden need to do laundry, get a snack, change the music, better organize the bookcase, check the news, or text a friend. This list can go on and on.

Human attention is not perfect – at least in the way we might imagine “perfect” to be. A focused, conscious attention sometimes can be difficult to engage and often difficult to maintain, but most likely, it evolved to function this way so that we can notice important things even when we’re fully engaged in something else. (See Haladjian & Montemayor, 2015 or our previous blog post.)

Different forms of basic attention modulate various types of information by both suppressing some stimuli and enhancing others. The actual way that a “focused attention” actually works is debated and will not come with a simple answer, but the main point is that without some level of focused attention, we would not be able to interact with the environment (but would merely react).

Attention is something we rely on consciously and unconsciously to modulate competing stimuli processed by our different perceptual systems as well as cognitive ones (e.g., thoughts, feelings, internal states). Inherent to our attentive experience is the competition among the many types of stimuli for further processing, since attention is a limited resource and can become “tired” after some time. So stimuli that capture our attention and maintain it, even for a moment, have accomplished their goal of influencing our perception, cognition, and sometimes even behavior.

A baby crying, a dog barking, a car horn sounding, an oven timer beeping, a message notification—all are examples of stimuli that capture attention and often require some behavioral reaction from us. Without these stimuli capturing our attention, we could leave our child hungry or burn the pizza in the oven or miss an important call from a partner. At the same time, we can be anxious to obtain the attention of others (kind of like a baby), so we are also constantly competing for each other’s attention. We are attention seekers, and consumers, by nature.

But there are even more demands on our attention that we do not always consider. These demands that are relatively new to us are motivated by an economic drive to convince us to buy things, ranging from physical products to experiences to ideas. This commercial motivation for grabbing our attention is said to have origins in the early advertisements in newspapers, where we first see the model of providing an affordable product (a newspaper) by supplementing the profit with paid advertising (see Wu, 2016). This model eventually spread to radio, even when some never thought that advertising would be tolerated on the radio, since it was the first medium to be delivered directly and continuously into homes. Eventually this practice moved into commercial television and then to the internet. Now, most forms of media that we consume seem to be unimaginable without advertisements.

Generally, ads are designed to grab attention both consciously and unconsciously in order to bring awareness or improve the familiarity of a certain item. This in itself can be a difficult task, especially with so many competing sources of stimuli for our attention. This situation becomes more complex when advertising is delivered within social media, where attention is already held by the social connection we crave (be it curiosity or boredom or genuine connection, although this is becoming increasingly rare as even personal exchanges become commodified and filtered through commercial products). It is almost as if these ads are surfing on the wave of attention we are giving to something more “meaningful”, as they appear interspersed within the social content that we are seeking. This intensifies when the advertising is personalized so that it becomes more difficult to “tune out”. Since social media is also designed to be addictive, it becomes a prime platform for delivering stimuli to an already engaged attention. Attention, designed to be grabbed, then becomes susceptible to exploitation and manipulation.

This attention-demanding aspect of capitalism is not new. This type of competition for our attention comes from different channels, such as billboards and news sources, and can even be embedded in entertainment (where advertising can appear as product placement in a TV series or a movie). Since we are driven to consume information (the informavore in us always seeks something), it is easy for external sources to appeal to this drive to process information from these different forms of media, in obvious and not so obvious ways.

Exploiting and soliciting attention in this context can be achieved using basic tricks. Creating stimuli with emotional content. Giving it a “sexy” headline or controversial wording. Adding sexually appealing images. These tactics can work for a variety of products. When attention is grabbed in this way (in a more bottom-up, automatic way), it can lead to some action that might achieve the goal of the advertiser. Buying chocolate. Lighting up a cigarette. Remembering a jingle. Ads in the public domain can easily trigger attentional biases, for example, there is evidence that a tobacco ad or even depiction in a movie will trigger the craving for a cigarette (see the research on this topic). In a political context, this abuse of our attention generates serious problems from misinformation to the unprecedented spread of hateful and anonymous information, since these often emotionally-charged items quickly grab attention and generate more “hits."

In a consumer-focused world, attention becomes an important commodity, and those that win the competition for this limited resource benefit from it financially. This is why some online platforms are so successful, such as Facebook and Instagram: Their addictive products not only deliver targeted advertising but also sell our behavioral information to other corporations. This chronicling and delivery of our behaviors is at yet another level of information consumption by a new and larger informavore on our landscape: a commodified and exploitative informavore—the commercial informavore.

Illustration by Stefan Mosebach, used with permission.
An informavore with an appetite for our attention...
Source: Illustration by Stefan Mosebach, used with permission.

Attention is required for behavior, and when these behaviors are tracked (e.g., online), they can be used to better predict our needs or desires that can drive further consumption. This type of information is crucial to this new breed of capitalism, where personal information is given to the “Big Other” (as described in a fascinating book by Shoshana Zuboff, 2019). Our attention (and behavior) becomes the food source for this new type of informavore, one that is continually growing due to the insatiable appetites of informavores.

Understanding and grabbing our attention has become not just a science but also an art. And it’s also a battle – between attention that we try to control for our own needs and the attention that is diverted for commercial purposes.

So how do we regain control over our valuable attentional resources? Tim Wu (2016) suggests that we carefully “zone” where advertising is permitted, primarily to limit its impact within our homes and inevitably our human relationships (which can fuel a cycle of needing social connection but seeking it in the wrong places).

Is this suggestion for moderating the abuse of attention by keeping ads and tracking outside our homes enough? Is being mindful of this competition for attention a first step? Or is our attention too autonomous and cue-driven for us to truly control it? Perhaps mindfulness can help to a degree, but what also must be considered is a more structured regulation of this commodifying of human attention and behavior.

The ethics of this field must be discussed further and more loudly. The “Big Other” is not going to stop devouring our attention otherwise.

- Harry Haladjian and Carlos Montemayor


Haladjian, H. H., & Montemayor, C. (2015). On the evolution of conscious attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 595-613. doi:10.3758/s13423-014-0718-y

Wu, T. (2016). The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (First edition. ed.). New York: Knopf.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (First edition. ed.). London: Profile Books.

More from Harry Haroutioun Haladjian Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today