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Is Paying Attention Becoming More Difficult?

Aristotle noted that pleasurable activities tend to ‘destroy’ the unpleasurable.

Key points

  • Interest is attention that is given to or received from someone or something while attention is mental focus.
  • Multitasking is a direct result of the lack of focus.
  • We are also experiencing information overload that can be distracting and unmanageable.

Aristotle, 384 BC - 322 BC, noted that pleasurable activities tend to ‘destroy’ unpleasurable ones. For example, if I take pleasure in hearing flute music, I will stop doing the dishes when the flautist starts her solo. This concept of moving from one form of attention, doing dishes, to another form of attention, the flute music, raises several questions. Is attention a divided process? What is the difference between attention and interest? Due to the complexities of modern living, with all its distractions and attractions, is paying attention becoming more difficult?

What's the Difference Between Interest and Attention?

Interest is attention that is given to or received from someone or something while attention is mental focus. At some point, one’s mental focus may give way to someone or something that is of interest. Attention is still there but the object of the attention has shifted from one object to another. Aristotle’s idea that something unpleasurable will lose out to something more pleasurable seems to delineate many a person’s temporary loss of focus, at least on the original object.

When a task is boring, or tedious, or meaningless, and thus, less pleasurable, we tend to look for an alternative. We sometimes label this experience as too hard, or frustrating, or stressful. However, what we are really doing is leaving something or someone who is less interesting for someone or something that is more interesting. Our attention is still there but has shifted from A to B.

How Does Multitasking Affect Attention?

Part of the constant shifting of preferences has led to an inability to focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a direct result of this lack of focus. Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and becoming prone to errors due to insufficient attention. It can become harder to give our full attention to one thing.

Multitasking also has been shown to lead to higher levels of distractibility, which compromises one’s focus even more. Strangely, multitasking has been proven to slow down task completion. As a result, most studies on multitasking have demonstrated that multitasking is not efficient and will create distractions that negatively affect one’s ability to focus. Sadly, multitasking has grown more popular as a direct result of the busy lives we lead. Multitasking is an attempt to try and catch up to all that has been left undone.

How Does Technology Affect Attention

Early last year, the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London found that 49% of 2,000 adults surveyed felt their attention span was shorter than it used to be. Almost as many (47%) agreed that “‘deep thinking’ has become a thing of the past”.

We can also look at the soaring diagnoses of ADHD in adults. The rate of annual ADHD incidence among adults rose from 9.43 diagnoses per every 10,000 people in 2007 to 13.49 per 10,000 in 2016. The prevalence of ADHD among adults rose from 0.43% in 2007 to 0.96% in 2016, a 123% increase. An estimated 2.5% of adults worldwide have ADHD and 4.4% of adults in the U.S. have ADHD.

The Digital Whale Agency, in a study of teenagers, found that more media use, more video gaming and more online time predicted an increase in both attention and behavioural problems for teenagers. The results suggest that technology can have negative effects on attention span, and may be leading to an increased risk of attentional problems in this age group.

Information Overload

We are living in the information age. We are also experiencing information overload that is distracting and unmanageable. The amount of information and misinformation is growing exponentially. For example, 302 million U.S. smartphone users in 2021 sent 2 trillion text messages. There are 200 billion tweets sent per year worldwide. There are 74 trillion emails sent per year worldwide. Holding our attention and not getting sidetracked by someone or something else has never been more challenging. Online we are bombarded by ads that distract or attract us from the task at hand.

Utilizing Aristotle’s reasoning, we are primed to move from what we find as unpleasurable to something more pleasurable. This does, however, set us up to be attracted to our distractions.

That new car would look great in my garage. That new friend seems more interesting than my old friend. We become obsessed with looking for anything that will alleviate the hard work or the boredom in our lives. The unpleasurable becomes replaceable. Ultimately, when interest displaces our attention more often, our attention span shrinks. Looking at the sheer amount of interesting alternatives out there, and our shorter attention spans, is it any wonder we are seeing more ADHD, more multitasking, and more social media usage?


Digital Whale Agency (2021). The Impact of Technology on the Attention Spans of Teenagers.

Mark Textor (2023). Attention and (Painful) Interest: Revisiting the Interest Theory of Attention. Mind, Volume 132, Issue 526, April 2023, Pages 327–347.

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