Mike Norton: [music starts] So Allison, this morning I was leaving my house and I, as I always do, touched my left pocket to make sure my phone was there. And it wasn't. Instantly I started to be extremely anxious. But I thought, well, I can go back inside and just find it. And then I went back inside and I couldn't find it. And I started to have a full-blown anxiety attack. I was thinking, "I can't leave the house, I can't start my day without my phone." Do I have a problem?
Allison Schrager: You know, that's actually a disorder, which I suffer from as well. It is known as, "Nomophobia." And it is the fear of being away from your phone. It's a real phenomenon. And it's very similar to separation anxiety.
Mike Norton: I feel like that should be called, "Nomophonia." [laughter] See, it's like, "no mo' phone." See, how you, that's the, sorry, ok.
Allison Schrager: Our attention is constantly being pulled in a million directions. And, it just seems like we don't have the bandwidth for this just onslaught of information and stimulation.
Mike Norton: So adults spend about 10 hours a day looking at their screens. All kinds of screens in our lives now. We have work, and home, and our laptops, and our phones and our tablets, but that 10 hours speaks to how distracted we can be on top of everything else going on in our life. And, with so many demands on our attention, our ability to make really smart, thoughtful choices about things that really, really matter, like what we're doing with our money, is really gonna suffer.
One challenge that I want to have for listeners is, for the duration of this podcast, can you actually put your phone away, and not look at it for the entire length of the podcast? Just listen.
Mike Norton: I'm Mike Norton and I'm the host of Talking Green. I'm also a social psychologist at Harvard Business School. And I study the way people behave and misbehave. On Talking Green, we explore how psychological forces drive attitudes and decisions around money and investing. This episode, like every episode, I'm joined by Allison Schrager, an economist, journalist and culture maven. She's the author of the recent book, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel.
Allison Schrager: Hey Mike. Today we're looking at the Attention Economy. It's a part of the greater economy that honestly hasn't gotten enough attention until now.
Mike Norton: This is Talking Green.
Allison Schrager: An original podcast from TD Ameritrade and T Brand Studio at The New York Times.
Mike Norton: So Allison, you're an economist. And when people think of economics, they think of primarily money. But it turns out that money is not the only finite resource we have. Can you tell us a little bit about what we mean when we hear this phrase, "the Attention Economy?" What does that mean, or what, how should we be thinking about attention as an economic resource rather than the way we typically think about it?
Allison Schrager: Yeah, well, economics is all about how we allocate and value a scarce resource. And it's making me think just what a valuable commodity attention has become, especially undivided attention, which is becoming more and more scarce. And also, you know, more valuable as a result.
Mike Norton: It's strange to me that with our money, we kind of know it's a scarce resource and that we can't buy all the things that we want.
And with time, there's only 24 hours in a day. So we know that's finite, as well. But for some reason with our attention, we have a weird, different theory which is just, we can do all the things all of the time, and somehow it won't have any impact on any of them, that attention is unlimited. When you try to deal with this, Allison, in your own life, how do you try to manage these cases where everything is constantly coming toward you?
Allison Schrager: Well, not well. [laughter] I mean, I, I spent like, what, four years solving a single math problem? And now I can't go more than two minutes without checking Twitter. I mean, you're the psychologist, not I. I don't really know what the consequences are gonna be for that in terms of how we relate, in terms of how we make decisions.
Mike Norton: And how were you able to focus for four years on one math problem?
Allison Schrager: I used to not need that much stimulation. I could just sit for hours and just read, do calculations, or program. I think it's, people in your industry call it, "Flow."
Mike Norton: Um-hmm.
Allison Schrager: Yeah, you just feel so engaged and, you know, even if you get an email, you'll get annoyed. You're like, "I'm in the Zone."
And now, it's like, you just need these quick hits all the time.
Mike Norton: I find that I get a [music starts] state of flow when I'm writing about once a month, for about an hour, something like that.
Allison Schrager: Has that always been true?
Mike Norton: I think that might be even more than I used to, [laughter] used to have.
Allison Schrager: So we've both got problems focusing. And we might also both be nomophobes, where we freak out whenever we can't remember where we put our phone. One thing I'm wondering about is how our constant state of distraction and being tethered to our devices is impacting our decision making.
Mike Norton: Luckily, our next guest can explain how we've become so mired in distraction and what the constant strain on our attention does to our lives and money. Catherine Price is a science journalist and had an interesting epiphany about distraction in her own life, which led her down a really winding, tortuous path of research about what distraction does to our brains, and ultimately ended up in a book she published in 2018 called, "How to Break Up With Your Phone."
Mike Norton: Catherine, thanks so much for being here.
Catherine Price: Oh, thank you so much.
Mike Norton: So we start every show discussing Victorian furniture. And so I, I know that you're a fan of Victorian door knobs. Can you tell us about your experience with those door knobs?
Catherine Price: Yeah, and well I'm, that's why I said, "Yes," to this interview. I was just so excited to find the one show that possibly had an intersection with my interests. So thank you for that.
Mike Norton: It's a very niche audience with Victorian furniture, but we found you and we were so happy about it.
Catherine Price: Yeah, exactly. It's a real match. Um, where shall I begin with this? I never was really that into social media, but I used to have a habit of going onto eBay and looking for Victorian era door knobs. Also hinges. I was not limited to just door knobs and,
Mike Norton: Ah, that's actually a different podcast. So we'll sign you up for that one later.
Catherine Price: That's a different. Yeah, exactly. But anyway, I had had a baby also. I was up with her late one night and I noticed that, well, I was looking on eBay for antique door knobs and she was looking up at me. And I was so sleep deprived, I kind of saw that as it would appear to an outsider, this scene.
And it really upset me. And not just 'cause I had enough door knobs, but I realized that that was the impression she was getting off, of her mother in that moment. And I knew babies' eyes, their focal lengths are just developed enough to be able to see the distance of two or three feet. So, in other words, to be able to see their parent's face.
Mike Norton: Um-hmm.
Catherine Price: Presumably so they can bond with them. And I also knew of some experiments that had been done, uh, in particular this one called the Still Face Experiment where researchers had parents interact normally with babies for a minute and then go complete still-faced. In other words, no expression, no matter what the baby did. Just for one minute. And it's really hard to watch, because the baby goes from being a normal baby interacting with its mom, in this case, to animalistic shrieking, like, writhing against its restraints in its little car seat thing. And what I realized was that I was still-facing my own daughter. And, more broadly speaking, we're all still-facing each other when we look down at our phones instead of making eye contact with the people around us. So that was really a wakeup call for me, both in terms of my doorknob fixation, and also my approach towards my own technology use.
Mike Norton: Yeah. I think the ubiquity of the looking down and not engaging because we're so invested in our phone. Do you think of it as, I mean, most of us, I think the instinct is to blame just ourselves. Like, "Why can't I be the kind of person who's fully engaged with other people, but I keep getting distracted by my phone, or by my apps." But is there something about the design of these things itself that kind of draws us away from these important things toward these trivial things?
Catherine Price: Definitely. There’s a lot going on there. Many of the apps that we find the most compelling and time-sucky, those are deliberately designed to make us spend maximum amount of time on them because that is how the app makers make money. So in particular, social media, the news, email, dating, games, those are all the typical ones that get people really sucked in, with social media being by far the biggest time suck. Those apps are specifically designed to mimic slot machines for the reason that, that slot machines, or mimic, are, are excuse me, designed to make us want to sit in front of the machine for as long as possible and lose track of time. So once you start to realize that there is deliberate similarities between those two devices, you start to recognize that a lot of this is about manipulating our biochemistry to get us to behave in ways that, if we actually thought about it consciously, we would not want to be behaving.
Mike Norton: So what is the underlying brain chemistry?
Catherine Price: So a lot of people have heard of dopamine and uh, or erroneously think of it as like a pleasure chemical. It's not that. It is a chemical, but it's your brain's way of recording when something is worth doing again. It's a salience indicator. So, one example I use is I've gotten really into morel mushroom foraging recently. Now I'm going to sound like a total weirdo. So I basically just look for door knobs and morel mushrooms. Um, but you know, it's, it's hard to find morel mushrooms,
Mike Norton: It's the fastest growing hobby in your household. I think, so it’s,
Catherine Price: Yeah. I think actually this is my husband's fault. He, he got me into this. But it's really hard to find them, but it is incredibly satisfying when you do find one. And I've been doing it for about three years now and I can tell you basically every single spot I found one of those mushrooms because when I did find a mushroom, my brain released dopamine saying, "Ooh, that's exciting. Worth remembering and doing that again." So, in that case, the result of my dopamine system is that I have a lovely accompaniment to, um, to dinner. But in the case of slot machines, and our phones, when you start to look at your phone through this lens, you can see dopamine triggers all over it. For example, bright colors. If you think about like a bright raspberry against a green background of a bush, that contrast, and that saturated color is very compelling to us. You have rewards. So in a slot machine, obviously you've got the potential that you could win money. In our social media apps, the fact that you can get social affirmation in the form of likes. And then one of the biggest
Mike Norton: Yeah.
Catherine Price: Well, couple of the biggest things, you've got novelty, there's always something new on your phone. And that is a huge dopamine trigger. And even more importantly, the unpredictability of what will be waiting for you. And notifications, speaking of which, they're entirely geared towards getting our, us to turn our attention toward the phone. And then once we do so, and we look at the phone and find a dopamine trigger, which will happen by design every time we check the phone, it reinforces this loop that we'll just keep checking, and checking, and checking, and checking. So that when you don't check the phone, you feel anxious. And then what do you do to alleviate that anxiety? You check your phone. And then what happens when you check your phone? You get a dopamine trigger, which reinforces the idea that that was worth doing again and again.
Mike Norton: And the, the experience of looking at our phone, we often sort of code it as distraction from something else, but in a way we're, it's sort of, sadly, our most deeply attentive moments in life now are staring at our phone. Even as your kid is off in the periphery looking at your face.
Catherine Price: Yeah. I call it an "intensely focused state of distraction," because you are completely oblivious to the world around you, but you're being very distracted within the phone itself 'cause you're not looking at one thing, you're not getting lost in a novel or something. You're flitting between different apps, or, if you're looking at one app, you're looking at multiple social media posts, multiple emails, things that each have a different emotional tone to them and also have a different pull on your attention.
Mike Norton: You have this image that I love, which is, it's kind of like being distracted by your phone is sort of like walking around, throwing away dollar bills. Can, can you explain a little bit what you mean by that?
Catherine Price: Yeah.
Mike Norton: Yeah.
Catherine Price: I was thinking about how to make this idea of the attention economy more vivid to people. The vision that came to mind about a week ago was the idea that you're essentially, like, if you're walking down the street, and you're looking at Instagram, and scrolling and whatever, it's the same thing as taking dollars out of your wallet and just tossing them on the ground. The idea being that our attention, and our time, are both finite. You can only focus on one thing at a time, and we only have a finite amount of time alive. And that, I would argue, means that time and attention are our most valuable commodities. And so if you think about your capacity for both those things as being contained in a wallet like you, right, you get like a wallet or a bank account of attention and time, when you're spending it looking at Facebook, looking at Instagram, looking at the news, whatever, you're essentially throwing money out of that wallet. I mean, maybe you feel good about where it's going, and then in that case, great, that's fine. But in a lot of cases, I think people, if they really thought about it, would truly feel like they were just throwing money on the ground. So I think that can be a useful image for people to carry in their minds if they find themselves getting sucked into these spirals.
Mike Norton: I'm realizing as, as we're chatting that what, what we've done is we've sent people listening to this onto their phones to look for things like, places to find mushrooms. [laughter] And, and
Catherine Price: You can't find them. Don't try it.
Mike Norton: So, in addition to that kind of pulling us away from things, what happens to us when we're on our phones? If you think about the decisions that we make in our lives, not just about how to spend our time, but, but literally how to do anything in life, does this intense focus on this one thing help us make decisions sometimes? Does it hurt our decision making? How does it play out?
Catherine Price: Well, I think we need to recognize how much time we're spending on our phones and then the idea that our brains are constantly changing in response to the stimulation, or the stimuli that we present them with. So, the average person these days is spending about four hours on their phone, like, just their phone. We're not even talking about other screens. And if you think about any other context, if you spend four hours a day doing anything else, you're going to get pretty good at it because our brains are constantly changing. There's a very famous study of London cab drivers, for example, a series of studies, in which their brains were examined because they have to study for a test called, "The Knowledge," which is a test where you have to memorize every landmark, and address in London. Incredibly complex. It takes months, if not years to study for. And they found that the drivers who had passed it, the area of the brain responsible for spatial memories was actually bigger, physically bigger, in those people. The conclusion being that their thoughts had actually changed the physical structure of their brain, 'cause they'd spent so much time studying for this. So when you think about that, to me, it, it suggests that we should be careful about how we spend our attention because it actually changes our brain. And in the case of the phone, as we're talking about this intensely focused state of distraction, as I was saying earlier, we're not looking at just one thing. We're looking at multiple things. We're switching our attention rapidly between lots of stuff. If you don't believe it, try it. Try to just uni-task. Try to just spend one day where you do one thing at a time, right down to brushing your teeth. I find it fascinating to notice how many things I try to do while I'm brushing my teeth. And I know that it's not effective. I am not good at making a bed with one hand, while I'm trying to brush my teeth, but I do it like, every single morning. So, I think that can be a useful wakeup call for people. What you do with your observations is your own deal. But, yeah, our brains are not meant to multitask and the phone is designed to encourage you to multitask, and those are two dissonant states. [laughs]
Mike Norton: I think, I think that you, you know, you've gone too far when you're, when you're brushing your teeth while you're eating. [laughter] That seems to me to be the moment when you say,
Catherine Price: That's a good point. That's a good point.
Mike Norton: "I need to change." We actually did some research a few years ago, Malia Mason at Columbia Business School, and I worked on a project where she really tried to show that, this kind of myth that we're sort of focused people and then our minds wander, but that's kind of an aberration. And then we feel badly when our minds wander because we think we're the kind of people who, you know, focus on things. And, in fact, what Malia shows in our research is that the default state of the mind is, as you were saying, mind-wandering. Our mind is just naturally all over the place. And so, in a way, it's a miracle that we're ever able to bring our attention down to one thing, like, you know, "Which product should I choose?" Or you know, "Which stocks should I invest in?" because our mind is trying to blow away from that, and go to anything else that we're interested in.
Catherine Price: Yeah, I think that's a very important point. And also brings up the distinction between mind-wandering when you're truly letting your mind do its own thing, and packing your mind with distractions. So,
Mike Norton: Um-hmm.
Catherine Price: Previously, if you had, like, downtime waiting online for coffee or something, you might just stare at a wall and, or I don't know, heaven forbid, talk to the person next to you, but you basically would just kind of be left there to let your mind do its thing for a couple seconds. But now everybody is using that time, and I know this cause I'm totally creepy and I look at what people are doing on their phones, um, to scroll through Instagram and check the weather and then they cycle through their email. Then they go back to the weather. I've seen people go through these cycles multiple times, like app cycling just in the time it takes to wait for a cup of coffee. And it seems harmless, but if you think about what's actually happening there, you're keeping your brain constantly on intake mode. And you're not giving your brain the chance to actually wander, and to both process the experiences and, and information that you've taken in, but also to make connections that it might not previously have had.
Mike Norton: The other thing that I sometimes find really worrisome is that people will, they'll be toggling back and forth between like, social media, and then like their bank accounts, [laughter] and then back to social media, and then, you know, like their kid's school. You know, we're making these really important decisions sometimes in eight seconds. And then we're right back to the other thing. Do you have any thoughts on how that's, you know, if I'm making my investment portfolio, and then right after that I'm back on some ridiculous website about cats or something? I guess it could help our decision making, but it feels like that constant distraction might take us away from decisions that really matter.
Catherine Price: What comes to mind immediately is that, I mean there's a number of studies showing if you have a smart phone on the table, even if you're not interacting with it, it reduces the perceived quality of conversations. That's one study. And then it also makes people perform less well on cognitively demanding tasks. And that makes total sense if you think about it, because to make a decision you need to actually be able to focus.
Mike Norton: And this is, sorry, but this is just having the phone, just having a phone on the table, not even on it.
Catherine Price: Yeah.
Mike Norton: Just it's there.
Catherine Price: Yeah. Not even, not even on it.
Mike Norton: Uh-huh.
Catherine Price: I mean that, and if you are dividing your attention in any way, regardless of what it's on, you will not be able to do a cognitively demanding task well. The idea that we can multitask as a total myth. We cannot do two things that are cognitively demanding at once. Like you can listen to the radio, and fold your laundry, but that's 'cause your laundry's not requiring the same processing in your brain. Anyway. Point being anything that divides your attention is going to make it harder for you to concentrate, by definition, and, therefore, make intelligent decisions. So, with our phones, we have an interesting confluence where you have the ability to make truly consequential decisions on this little piece of machinery in your pocket.
And it's a device that is distracting us and reducing our ability to make wise decisions, in general.
Mike Norton: Probably because, number one, you're not giving it enough time. Number two, you can't wait to get back to the other app. And you can think of so many reasons why, on these devices, it might really influence our decision making.
Catherine Price: And it also makes it so easy. I mean, you just touch a button. It doesn't really seem consequential. I mean you can, [laughs] you can make an irreversible, like, stock decision with the same motion it takes to give a like to that cat picture you were looking at. I mean that's really nuts if you think about it.
Mike Norton: So it feels like everything we've talked about, how it's the norm now to be constantly switching between apps and constantly switching between tasks, how our brains really just aren't equipped to multitask, it feels like it's really, really disastrous to be making portfolio decisions, or huge investment decisions, while we're in this distracted state. We really need to be able to concentrate. We need to be able to think deeply without being pinged all the time by distractions.
Catherine Price: Yeah, exactly.
Mike Norton: So we're doomed? What, what can we,
Catherine Price: No.
Mike Norton: What can we do?
Catherine Price: One of the first steps people should take, I really encourage people to start by asking them philosophically how they actually want to spend their time and attention. In the same way that you budget your money. You know that you want to take a vacation so you can't spend as much money on this other thing. Well if you know you want to spend more time with your kid, or you know you want to be present on your vacation, then you're going to have to cut something else. So it's an interesting exercise to have an attention budget. And the reason I think that's so important to start with is that too often people will jump right into what I call like, the tips and tricks, like, the life hacks. For example, turning your phone to black and white. Turning off the notifications. Getting it out of your bedroom. All of which are really important and effective, but they're not going to stick if you don't have a broader context because you'll be trying to stick with them out of willpower. And that is a horrible way to try to change your habits. Once you have that framework, then you can start to make changes to your phone and to your physical environment to support those new habits. For example, so many people tell me they want to read more. Well, put a book on your bedside table, so when you reached for the phone on autopilot, which you will, then you encounter the book instead. And also, get an alarm clock. Like, most people use their phones as an alarm clock. And then they say, "I can't get my phone out of my bedroom 'cause I, it's my alarm clock." And then there's this, always this beat. And then they're like, "I guess I could get an alarm clock." [laughs]
Mike Norton: Exactly.
Catherine Price: You know,
Mike Norton: I think so important in what you're saying too, is this idea that, "What are you going to do instead?" Right? So, I mean, if you think of dieting, right? You don't say, "I'm going to eat healthier," and then sit and stare at the refrigerator all day. [laughs]
Catherine Price: Right.
Mike Norton: There's no way that you're possibly gonna stick to your diet if you literally are in the same room as the refrigerator all day.
Catherine Price: And I should add to that that you know, phones are amazing tools. So, in addition to being an obstacle in the sense of being time sucks, they also are, I think of mine as a supercomputer I keep in my pocket. There's no way I'd want to get rid of it, but,
Mike Norton: Yeah.
Catherine Price: To, to define what's, what you love about your phone, what you don't love, what's a good productive use of your time, what's not, and then try to maximize the positive and minimize the negative.
Mike Norton: I think one, one little thing that I was thinking about as I was reading your book is this idea that we put, often our, the screensaver on our phone is like the cutest picture of our kid that's ever been taken. [laughs] So every time you pick, but, nothing, leaving aside what apps or what anything, every time you pick it up, it's like, "Bam, I love, I'm, I'm in love."
Catherine Price: Yeah, I call that Trojan Horse design where you basically have,
Mike Norton: Yeah.
Catherine Price: Things that make it so that you let down your guard even more, and you, be, develop this true personal attachment with your phone. And then you don't realize what you've let into your life along with the cute picture of your kid. Yeah. My, my Home screen background is black. It's just a total black screen. And so is my Lock screen. And I find that that is very helpful. And, backing up a bit, one of the most practical tips I can give people in terms of the phone is that your Home screen should not contain temptations. It's, your phone, you want it to be a tool, not a temptation.
Mike Norton: And then, in terms of making financial decisions?
Catherine Price: Recognize the limitations of your attention, that you will make poorer decisions if you are not fully focused.
Mike Norton: Catherine, thank you so much for the time. It was great to chat.
Catherine Price: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
Allison Schrager: Mike, I wonder how many of our listeners are checking their email right now?
Mike Norton: Technically it should be none because I challenged them at the beginning to listen all the way through without texting or emailing.
Allison Schrager: Well like Catherine was saying, we can only do one cognitively demanding task at a time. And obviously, listening to this podcast requires full cognitive bandwidth.
Mike Norton: I think this general idea of our attention being limited and finite is really, really important. And I think if there's one thing we can definitely take away from this conversation, it's that the attention economy deserves our deep, and frightened, respect.
Allison Schrager: I like the way Catherine describes being distracted, "It's like throwing money away on the street." And our level of distraction is such that, in some cases, we may be at half capacity when we're making financial choices.
Mike Norton: Yeah, we sort of take for granted that we're able to focus on things that really matter to us, and tune out the other stuff. And, actually, kind of we're not really very good at that. We actually have a hard time tuning out the other stuff and a really hard time focusing on the important stuff. And what that means is if we're not able to focus on the important stuff, all of these really intricate, complex decisions, like planning for the future, investing our money, all of the things that really matter in life, we might be making really big financial mistakes.
Allison Schrager: Um-hmm.
Mike Norton: The second thing I loved that I got from chatting with Catherine is this phrase that she used, "intensely focused state of distraction," which at first I kind of thought was an oxymoron, and then I realized, it basically describes exactly how I'm living my life. And it's like, even when we feel like we're focused pretty intensely on what we're doing, we're constantly switching tasks back and forth all the time.
Allison Schrager: Right. I've noticed I even have a hard time sitting through a movie without checking my phone 90 times. And, this actually feeds one of the brain's natural design flaws. I think you studied this, Mike. Our natural state as humans is to be pretty distracted to begin with. We're not naturally focused at all.
Mike Norton: Yeah, our research shows that, like, our lay theory is that we can focus our minds and then occasionally we get distracted. But, in fact, the case is that we're all over the place, all the time. Our mind's just bouncing around here and there, and thinking about all sorts of random things, but it does mean that even when we're focusing, anything can take us back away, including ridiculous things like cat pictures. And I think our digital lifestyle with all of these screens and devices around us all the time, really feeds into that problem.
Allison Schrager: So it's even more important for us to be aware of how distracted we are because counteracting that, even for our own good, or for the good of our own financial lives, just isn't easy.
Mike Norton: But there is some good news, I think. The, the third takeaway that I got is we are able to limit technology's impact on us, and become better at deep thinking, and actually make better decisions, both in our lives in general, but also particularly with our finances. And from what Catherine said, it's not a magic trick, it's actually, there's some very simple things we can do. Like changing our environments so that we're not so distracted,
Allison Schrager: But Mike, are you really gonna change the background so it's no longer a picture of your daughter on your phone?
Mike Norton: My background on my phone from now on is going to be a picture of my nemesis [laughter] so that every time I open it I feel, I feel filled with rage and put it back away.
Allison Schrager: And that makes you focus?
Mike Norton: I'm not sure if it will make me focus, [laughs], or, or not, but it will be different. [laughs]
Allison Schrager: Talking Green is an original podcast from TD Ameritrade and T Brand Studio at The New York Times. Learn more about staying focused on your finances at NYTimes.com/TalkingGreen.
Mike Norton: And subscribe to Talking Green now so you don't miss a single episode. Join us next time as we explore the fascinating topic of money and gender. And how what's going on in schools in Finland sheds unique light on the topic.
TO: And afterwards I was talking to a woman who had grown up in Finland and was now living in Kansas. And she said that before coming to the U.S., she'd never heard anyone suggest that men should be better at math than women. Well, actually, in Finland, there is no math gap in middle school.
Mike Norton: I'm Mike Norton.
Allison Schrager: And I'm Allison Schrager.
Mike Norton: Thanks for listening.