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attention economy

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

The attention economy is the collective human capacity to engage with the many elements in our environments that demand mental focus. The term reflects an acknowledgement that the human capacity for attention is limited and that the content and events vying for that attention far exceed that capacity.

The recognition of attention as a limited and valuable resource has different implications in different contexts. In personal life and human resources management (HRM), for example, attention economics is applied to help people most effectively allocate their mental resources for productivity and work-life balance. For content producers and marketers, on the other hand, the attention economy is a competitive landscape where they vie for the greatest possible share of the commodity.

The concept of the attention economy was first developed by Herbert Alexander Simon, an American economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist. In his 1971 article, “Designing organizations for an information-rich world,” Simon explained how information and attention follow the laws of supply and demand:

“[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Since 1971, the amount of information has continued to grow exponentially, in particular since the advent of the internet and social media. Attention management is becoming increasingly crucial to help people deal most effectively with the huge number of events and the enormous volume of content we encounter on a daily basis. 

This was last updated in May 2019

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