Global warming, pollution, school bullying, malnutrition, rising obesity rates, racism, antibiotic resistance… The list of problems that we humans are currently facing is a lengthy one. It may perhaps be even longer than we think. All of the aforementioned vexations have received plenty of coverage and are well-known to the public; however, certain other, more obscure issues have stayed mostly out of the limelight. One such matter has to do with human interactions, and in particular attention-seeking behavior…
How our innate desires for attention can turn against us, making us less productive, creative, and satisfied with life
It’s not a new phenomenon that we humans strive to be noticed and liked by others. After all, we’re community-living social creatures. However, in recent times, our social landscape has changed dramatically, in large part because the internet, and social media in particular, came onto the scene in a big way. This prodigious digital communication platform clearly offers many remarkable opportunities; however, as we know, it also has a troubling side to it. One salient, yet frequently overlooked feature of this underbelly pertains to the fact that the internet allows for an unprecedented level of attention-seeking. Actually, it not only allows for it; its current set-up fosters it.
One doesn’t have to look far and wide to find evidence to this effect; all one has to do it is head on over to one of the many social media platforms that currently exist, whether it be YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, and one will quickly see that on such channels, attention appears to be the currency by which “everything” is measured, This is accentuated by the concept of likes and followers, as well as by clickbaits, ads, and sexy, eye-catching thumbnails.
Is this really a problem, you might ask?
I’d argue that it is, as it’s liable to foster a somewhat toxic environment in which creativity, truth, honesty, and innovation are made largely inaudible by the loudness of shock-value. Basically, it’s easy to fall into the habit of vociferously appealing to people’s most basic instincts, such as our desire for sex, in an attempt to fuel one’s own feeling of self-worth, as opposed to doing what one believes in, irrespective of how it’s received and how popular it becomes.
Furthermore, as we know, in such a milieu, it’s easy to get a false impression of what the world is really like, as we have a habit of misrepresenting ourselves on the internet, glossing over the less glamorous aspects of our lives. In particular young people who aren’t necessarily consciously aware of these things and who are highly concerned about their social standing are liable to become unsatisfied with themselves as they then compare themselves to others online, as indirectly supported by the growing body of research linking increased social media use with various mental health woes (1, 2, 3).
Basically, we’re in a situation where the desire for attention in many instances appears to take precedence over aspirations for creating something creatively great. The massive focus on generating traffic, shares, and likes have very much contributed to engendering this situation. Ultimately, this arguably mars the human condition and hinders our growth as a species.
What does this have to do with Darwinian medicine?
At this point, you may be wondering what the @#$% this has to do with Darwinian medicine. The reason I feel it’s relevant to this site is that it touhces on something that greatly affects our health and well-being. Moreover, it’s concerned with the nature of the human biology and a situation that is evolutionarily novel/unprecedented.
Smartphones, TVs, and social media platforms only became a part of our milieu very recently. One doesn’t have to go more than a few decades back to see that the human social experience has undergone tremendous changes lately. Up until not so long ago, all communication occurred in a non-digital way, and if we go even further back, to the time when we lived as hunter-gatherers, everyone lived together in small, tightly-knit bands. That’s arguably the type of social environment we’re best adapted for.
In such a milieu, one only interacts with a limited number of individuals throughout one’s lifetime and people live in close proximity to one another, meaning that it’s difficult to only present certain (‘favorable’) aspects of one’s character or life to others and that there’s very limited opportunity to garner massive attention from a lot of people. Furthermore, it means that you don’t really have that many individuals to compare yourself to.
Under such circumstances, one would certainly expect people to try to behave in such a manner so that they are liked and appreciated by others, so as to attain a favorable social and reproductive standing in the group; however, given the small size and intimate nature of such communities, the potential scope of attention-seeking behavior would obviously be limited.
Also, of note, based on what I’ve read, it’s ordinary for hunter-gatherers to quickly take action if anyone starts thinking too highly of themselves. For example, if a young man becomes cocky from experiencing great hunting success, other members of the band are liable to start mocking the size or quality of his prey, so as to take a stab at the hunter’s ego and bring him down to Earth (4).
In the 21st century, however, many of us don’t have such companions to keep us in check. Moreover, we’re in a situation in which we can compare ourselves to pretty much all other humans on this planet, at least all of those who readily display their lives on the internet. Basically, the brain circuits that evolved because they facilitated social and reproductive success in the past are now operating in a completely different, digitalized sociocultural environment. The reason we appear more attention-seeking today than in the past can’t be explained by biological change, but rather by environmental change.
The internet taps into and exploits our primal desires to feel liked and approved by others. Unfortunately, like all things that invoke a supernormal stimuli, it can mess with our brains and undermine our health and well being, at least over the long run. This is not to say that modern technology doesn’t offer great opportunities; however, there’s no doubt that it also has its risks.
How can we take this into consideration in our daily life, turning the insights into a strategy of living?
Just yesterday, I was talking about this issue with a friend of mine. Basically, he said the following:
If you’re going to do something, such as create some type of art, whether it be a film, video game, book, or piece of music, do it because you’re passionate about it, not because you’re looking for some type of reward, such as money, attention, or approval from others. If there is some kind of reward, then great, but don’t expect it or go out looking for it. Just consider it a pleasant bonus.
I completely agree. Basically, we agreed that it’s a trap to make something in an attempt to please the masses or garner recognition and admiration so as to stroke one’s ego. That’s unlikely to lead to anything good. Not just because it’ll undermine the creative process and keep one from creating something genuinely great, but also because it’ll likely cause one to become depressed and disheartened, seeing as it’s not easy to really break through and be noticed, particularly in this day and age, in which so many people are striving for stardom. This is true pretty much regardless of what type of profession one is in.
And even if one were to be noticed and get the attention one is looking for, that’s unlikely to yield deep, long-lasting satisfaction, as true confidence and happiness arguably emanate from the inside, not from the outside; something that helps explain why so many celebrities have been quoted as saying that stardom is far from all it’s been made out to be.
One group of people who’s in a unique position to talk about the lure of getting attention, as well as the pitfall of spending your life striving for it, is actors. Recently, I read the autobiography of Bryan Cranston, the lead in the super-popular series Breaking Bad. Like most other actors, he was struggling to get a job early in his career, auditioning for hundreds of roles hi didn’t land. All of this rejection got to him, eroding his feeling of self-worth.
After years of rejection and limited success, Cranston decided to talk to a mental health specialist about the issues he was facing. The specialist recommended that he should focus on process, not outcome. That changed everything for Bryan. Instead of going into additions looking to get something, he went into them with the purpose of giving something: a great performance. And giving a great performance requires focus and process-oriented thinking. Not so long after he adopted this new way of thinking, he got his breaking role in Malcolm in the Middle and eventually also the role in Breaking Bad.
Other actors attest to the importance of being present in the moment and the dangers of outcome-oriented thinking, one of which is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s been in celebrated films such as The Dark Knight and Inception. In what is one of the most important TED talks I’ve come across to date, he argues, not unlike Bryan Cranston, that it’s better to try to focus one’s attention and work on creating something that one really believes in than to strive for approval and popularity.
Here’s the talk, in case you want to check it out…
Of note, Christopher Nolan, the man who made some of the most popular films Joseph Gordon-Lewitt has been in, has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t even have a cell phone (5). He tries to be completely submerged in the process and stick to his guns, avoiding being reactive in his creative process (6).
In addition to these mental strategies, I think it’s important to point out that one’s well-being and feeling of self-worth, and hence, the degree to which one compares oneself with others and feels in need of attention, greatly depends on one’s physiological state, in the sense that vibrantly healthy people tend to be more productive and sure of themselves than sick individuals. In other words, if you want to become less concerned about the opinions of others, then you may want to look into enhancing your general health, for example by changing your diet or manipulating your microbiota, in addition to changing your way of thinking.
My personal experience with attention-seeking
Part of the reason why I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these things is that I’ve long been involved in the health and fitness scene and actively posting stuff on the internet. Back when I first started out I remember being very conscious of how the pictures, articles, and so fort I put out were received: if they captured people’s attention or not and how many likes, comments, and the like they generated.
Not only did this adversely affect my work and creativity, in the sense that it made me focus excessively on getting attention and approval, as opposed to just letting the creative juices flow, but it also undermined my mood and mental health. Like Gordon-Levitt points out, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel of attention-seeking. Irrespective of how «popular» one becomes, there’ll most certainly be someone out there who’s even hotter at the moment.
Today, I certainly don’t claim to not care at all about getting attention; however, I try to not let it dictate what I do, at least not to a great extent. One of the things that I’ve felt a need to do to make that a reality is to distance myself somewhat from the chatter of the internet. I certainly still read and try to keep up with the things I feel are important, but I attempt not to compare myself to others or let my work be guided by what’s trendy or hot at the moment or what I think people want to hear. I by no means claim to have this whole thing completely nailed down; however, I’m certainly aware of its importance.
In this technologically enhanced day and age, it’s not necessarily easy to get to a point where what matters is the work, not people’s perception of the work or whether it gets widespread attention or not; however, I certainly believe that it’s something it’s worth striving for.
Much of what we humans do either indirectly or directly revolve around getting attention and approval from others, and in the process, attaining an advantageous social position and attracting healthy, fertile members of the opposite sex. This is not a new phenomenon. However. in the environment in which we now live, these primal instincts are expressed in an unprecedented manner as a result of our evolutionarily novel living situation, in which people reside in isolated living units and are regularly exposed to mental health-suppressing substances, and everyone is connected via the internet and social media. Not only does this situation set the stage for an unprecedented level of attention-seeking behavior, but it makes it possible to compare oneself to millions of people online.
This is somewhat analogous to the situation that currently exists with respects to sugary foods. In the past, such foods were generally hard to come by, meaning that the dopamine-rush they evoke was not an everyday experience. Today, however, sugary foods are not only ubiqitous, but many are of a supernormal, nutritionally enhanced nature. Just like constantly seeking out the «mental hit» that such foods provide is a very bad idea, it’s arguably a pitfall to continually strive for the feeling that getting attention brings.
It’s arguably important to be aware of these things; not just because it helps one become more cognizant of one’s own feelings and thoughts, but also because it can help us navigate our lives in a safer, healthier manner. The general theme seems to be that it’s better to focus on giving than taking….
Pictures: 1 and 2: Freepik.com 3: No rights reserved.