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Attend, if just for a moment, to the concept of attention.


Attention shapes reality. Your attention shapes what you find and what you find shapes your attention. An artist sees beauty in a dead tree, an ecologist sees habitat, a council officer sees risk that must be removed.


Attention is a posture, a conscious physical, cognitive and emotional stance.


When we regard attention as a resource, we commodify it with the language of economics. We pay attention and expect a return on our investment. Time is money. We talk of attention markets and fear its scarcity. We compete for attention and we guard against its loss.


Attention is certainly finite, but fixating on spans and scarcity obscures a different path to change.


Attention comes from the Latin ‘attendere’, combining ‘ad’ (towards) and ‘tendere’ (to stretch) - to stretch towards.


Reflecting on this etymology opens new lines of thought and possibility for changemakers.

-       What are we pulling away from as we stretch towards something new?

-       What reasoning pathways do we want people to take?

-       How can we guide this direction with words?


Most cognitive processing – a staggering 98% – occurs beneath the level of our conscious awareness. The words we use, the frames they evoke, the values they encode, all subconsciously guide the direction of our feelings, thoughts and actions.


Metaphors are particularly effective in shaping the direction of thought. In English, we use about six metaphors a minute in conversation, effortlessly comparing something known and tangible (the source domain) to convey the unknown and intangible (the target domain).


Drawing on the source domain (e.g., heat) to describe the target domain (e.g., anger) is how we explain and understand new concepts and ideas, as well as abstract things like emotions.


When we transfer our knowledge of the source domain to explain and understand the target domain, we transfer complex webs of embodied, experiential knowledge and entailments. The effects on evaluation and judgement can be profound.


In a classic case from the social science literature, researchers tested the effect of metaphor on reasoning by exposing two groups of people to identical crime data that varied only in the metaphors used to preface the problem. One group was told that ‘crime is a beast preying on the city’, while the other group was told ‘crime is a virus infecting the city’. This framing effect directed the attention of the two groups along very different reasoning pathways as they transferred their knowledge of the source domain (beasts preying or viruses infecting) to understand the target domain (crime).


Metaphors shape both the parameters and direction of thought. They stretch our attention towards a judgement in a powerful process that lies beneath our conscious awareness.


When asked what should be done about crime in this city, those primed with the ‘beast preying’ metaphor advocated for harsher punishments, longer sentences and more police. In contrast, the ‘virus infecting’ group suggested preventive measures and strategies for social reform.


The ‘beast preying’ metaphor primed a short-term mindset; a hard-line, linear way of thinking. The ‘virus infecting’ metaphor primed a longer-term mindset; a more compassionate, systemic way of thought.


When asked about the basis for their crime recommendations, an astonishing 97% of participants in this study said they relied on the data. The metaphor caught their subconscious awareness but evaded their conscious grasp.


Dog-whistling, diversion, deflection, division, confusion and omission, are other communicative strategies used to direct our attention for different purposes. Bringing these effects into our conscious awareness is a fundamental skill for changemakers and one that can be developed with practice.


Remember, attention is a posture, an intentional stance. Words act as signposts for reasoning. Orientate people towards positive change by saying what you’re for, rather than what you’re against. Stretch towards the change you seek to make. Provide the directions for thinking and reasoning with the metaphors you use and the values you activate. If you get lost, check your position, your orientation. What reasoning pathways do you want people to take? Attending to the directional aspects of attention lets us cut new paths to change, avoiding the traffic jams and congestion found in the usual focus on attention spans and scarcity.




Go Deeper

McGilchrist I. (2019) The master and his emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western World. Yale University Press.


Lakoff G. & Johnson M. (1980) Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.


Thibodeau P. & Boroditsky L. (2011) Metaphors we think with: the role of metaphor in reasoning. PLoS One 6, 1-11.


Thibodeau P., Hendricks R. K. & Boroditsky L. (2017) How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21, 852-86.


(Image: NGV)

© Words for Change

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