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The Economics of Attention

The ‘Economics of Attention’: A History of Economic Thought Perspective

"L’économie de l’attention" : une perspective d’histoire de la pensée économique
Agnès Festré et Pierre Garrouste
p. 3-36


Cet article s’intéresse à la littérature économique portant sur la notion d’attention qui s’est développée ces dernières années. Il retient une perspective d’histoire de la pensée en retraçant l’origine de cette notion depuis la philosophie en passant par la psychologie cognitive et la théorie économique d’auteurs qui ont poussé la réflexion à propos de la rationalité et de la prise de décision au-delà des frontières usuelles de la discipline économique. Cet exercice présente l’intérêt d’appréhender la littérature émergente sous un angle à la fois comparatif et critique. Finalement, l’article tente de proposer des pistes de réflexion et d’approfondissement de la littérature existante sur la notion d’attention à la lumière des développements dans le domaine de l’économie comportementale. 

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1. State of the Art

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1 “Another interesting psychological concept, neglected in behavioral economics until recently, is limited attention. Attention is the ultimate scarce cognitive resource. It is possible to learn to attend to many stimuli at the same time—as busy financial-market floor traders and cell-phone-using drivers do—but long-term memory suffers. Scarce attention might be useful for explaining economic phenomena like organizational structure (division of labor expands organizational attention but is constrained by the need to coordinate) and advertising (which ‘grabs’ attention).” (Camerer, 2003, 16)

2 Rational inattention deals with the issue of which parts of macroeconomic data should rational agents evaluate if limited-processing capacity forces them to discard part of the data.

3 The following statement by Trichet in his opening address dedicated to “Lessons from the crisis for macroeconomics and finance theory” at the ECB Central Banking Conference held in Frankfurt in November 2010 is exemplary: “When the crisis came, the serious limitations of existing economic and financial models immediately became apparent…we may need to consider a richer characterization of expectation formation. Rational expectations theory has brought macroeconomic analysis a long way over the past four decades. But there is a clear need to reexamine this assumption. Very encouraging work is under way on new concepts, such as learning and rational inattention.” (Trichet, 2010)

4 For a history of the notion of attention in philosophy, see Théodule Ribot (1889) and the introduction of Ribot (2007) by Serge Nicolas. Among the mentioned forerunners in philosophy that have been interested in the notion of apperception are Aristotle (300 B.C. [1984]), Malebranche (1675), Leibniz (1704), Condillac (1754) and Bonnet (1760).

5 Smith also referred to the notion of ‘surprise’, which he distinguished from ‘wonder’: “We wonder at all extraordinary and uncommon objects, at all the rarer phenomena of nature, at meteors, comets, eclipses, at singular plants and animals, and at everything, in short, with which we have before been either little or not at all acquainted; and we still wonder, though forewarned of what we are to see.” By contrast, “we are surprised at those things which we have seen often, but which we least of all expected to meet with in the place where we find them; we are surprised at the sudden appearance of a friend, whom we have seen a thousand times, but whom we did not imagine we were to see then.” (Smith, [1795] 1975, 44)

6 As Smith wrote: “Their [the scientists’] imagination, which accompanies with ease and delight the regular process of nature, is stopped and embarrassed by those seeming incoherencies; they excite their wonder, and seem to require some chain of intermediate events, which, by connecting them with something that has gone before, may thus render the whole course of the universe consistent and of a piece. Wonder, therefore, and not any expectation of advantage from its discoveries, is the first principle which prompts mankind to the study of Philosophy.” (Smith, [1775] 1975, 26)

7 For a history of attention in psychology, see Hatfield (1995, 1998), Titchener (1908) and Neumann (1971). Hatfield (1995) claims that the notion of attention has been introduced in psychology in 1730s by Wolff (1738).

8 The empirical works in order to measure attention are due to Wolff (1738), Bonnet (1760) and Donders (1864), a Dutch ophthalmologist who was a precursor in using mental chronometry. Mental chronometry is studied using the measurements of reaction time (RT). Reaction time is the elapsed time between the presentation of a sensory stimulus and the subsequent behavioral response. In psychometric psychology it is considered to be an index of speed of processing.

9 This point is controversial. Lovie (1983), who compiled tables showing the numbers of papers on attention listed in Psychological Abstracts and its predecessors, Psychological Index, in five-year intervals from 1910 to 1960, showed that numerous studies on attention were conducted during this time periods: for instance, Jersild (1927) on the ability to shift attention or Telford (1931) on the psychological refractory period (PRP) effect. Moreover, Stroop published in 1935 what is certainly one of the most widely cited studies in the field of psychology, in which he demonstrated that stimulus information that is irrelevant to the task can have a major impact on performance (Stroop, 1935). This research has given rise to the famous Stroop Color-Word Task, widely used in psychology. In this cognitive task, participants are asked to name the color of the ink in which an incompatible color word is printed. This test evidences that, e.g., it takes longer to say “red” aloud in response to the stimulus GREEN printed in red ink than to say “red” to the stimulus XXXXX printed in red ink.

10 Note that previous experiments by the Russian physiologists Pavlov and Bekhterev on dogs and animals showed that the conditioned responses to stimuli included measureable signs of attention such as pricked-up ears, head turned towards the stimulus, increased muscular tension, etc.

11 A central notion of this theory is ‘Shannon capacity’, which is a measure of information flow rate that is inherently probabilistic. It uses the reduction in the entropy (which is a global measure of uncertainty) of a probability distribution as the measure of information flow.

12 Selective attention is often loosely defined. A few definitions from the literature are: “The differential processing of simultaneous sources of information” (Johnson and Dark, 1986, 44); “A system of cognitive processes that manages the burden of having too much to do at once by prioritizing among stimuli to be processed” (Carr, 2004, 56); and “the generic term for those mechanisms which lead our experience to be dominated by one thing rather than another” (Driver, 2001, 53). Nowadays, one point of agreement is that selective attention is a broad concept covering many distinct mechanisms operating in a variety of brain systems, if not the entire system rather than one specific function or mechanism as some scientists maintained. For instance, Posner (2004) localized this function in the “attentional organ system”, LaBerge (1997) in the “triangular circuit” and McKnight (2007) in the synchronization of activity between prefrontal, parietal and mediotemporal cortex.

13 The Cocktail Party Effect illustrates the ability to focus our listening on a single talker among a mixture of conversations and background noises, and to pay attention to a stimulus that grabs our attention suddenly, such as our names.

14 Broadbent (1952) conducted an experiment of dichotic listening in which participants were instructed to answer a series of Yes-No questions about a visual display over a radio-telephone. For example, the participants would be asked “S-1 from G.D.O. Is there a heart on Position 1? Over”, to which the participants should answer “G.D.O. from S-1. Yes, over.” The participants were assigned to five different groups and their ability to answer one of two messages delivered at the same time (but one of which was irrelevant) was tested under varying contexts that manipulate information given by the instructor (through visual or auditory cues) concerning which of the two voices is to be answered. In the first four groups, participants heard two successive series of messages, in which two voices (G.D.O. and Turret) spoke simultaneously during some of the messages. In the fifth group, they heard two new recordings that permit to make simultaneous messages more distinct than for the other groups in addition to the recordings of group I, II, III and IV. Results indicate that visual cue to the correct voice is useless, thus suggesting that process of discarding part of the information contained in the mixed voices has already taken place.

15 Anne Treisman did her PhD in Oxford, when she met and marry three years later Michel Treisman, another Oxford graduate student. She remarried in 1978 to Daniel Kahneman. Shortly after, they accepted positions at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

16 Broadbent (1958) and Treisman (1969) concluded in favor of early selection models, showing that attention shuts down or attenuates processing in the unattended ear before the mind can analyze its semantic content. At the opposite, Deutsch and Deutsch (1963) supported the late selection view by showing that the content in both ears is analyzed semantically, even if the words in the unattended ear cannot access consciousness. Results like that of MacKay (1973) posed problems for filters theories, by showing that even unconscious stimuli could be processed to a high degree. For a survey on the early literature on attention in psychology, see Kahneman and Treisman (1984).

17 Pashler (1998) summarizes the empirical evidence obtained in attention psychology and asserts that capacity limits and perceptual gating both characterize human perceptual processing (Pashler, 1998, 224). According to this author, many controversies in psychology research result from the fact that some researchers identify the concept of attention with the allocation of a limited processing capacity to a given set of items, while others relate attention to the selection of this set by a gating mechanism. The gating mechanism implies that mental resources are allocated only to those items that have passed the perceptual filter, while the rest is ignored.

Wickens (1980) refers to Kahneman’s model as an approach focusing on the ‘energetic’ side of attention as compared to filter theories that focus on its ‘selective’ side. As summarized by Ruz, “whereas selection theories aimed at localizing the point in the processing chain (from perception to motor responses) at which irrelevant stimuli were filtered out (i.e., the location of the ‘bottleneck’), energetic views investigated how resources were divided among tasks or the unitary or multiple nature of this ‘attentional energy’.” (Ruz, 2006, 499)

18 The notion of executive attention is even more loosely defined that the one of selective attention. It was defined by Posner and Rothbart (1998) as “the regulation of thought, emotion and behavior” (Posner and Rothbart, 1998, 1915). Norman and Shallice included planning, conflict resolution, decision-making, error correction, and overcoming habitual responses to perform novel or difficult tasks as executive processes (Norman and Shallice, 1986, 2-3). Nowadays, the consensus seems to be that executive attention involves centralized supervisory control, which requires two important functions 1) information about and 2) causal influence over the things supervised and controlled.

19 In passing, it is to be noted that this model derives from Kahneman’s dual-task system based on the differentiation between endogenous (voluntary) and exogenous (involuntary/automatic) control. In Kahneman’s (1973) words, voluntary attention means that the subject’s attention is driven towards because they are relevant to a task that he has chosen to perform (Kahneman, 1973, 4), whereas “involuntary attention is related to level of arousal, which is largely controlled by the properties of the stimuli to which an organism is exposed” (ibid., 3). Kahneman’s model of executive attention has been criticized on the ground that it involves a “homunculus problem”: to wit, “a little man inside the brain” (Allport, 1980, 113) who directs attention. For Stinson (2009), this homunculus problem is attached to all theories of attention where executive attention is thought of as a cause rather than an effect. Moreover, Stinson argues that neither empirical evidences in neurosciences nor computational models purporting to support causal executive theories of attention can set down the issue in a satisfactory way.

20 Spotlight theory of visual attention (Posner et al., 1980) assumed that subjects are able to shift their spotlight of attention from location to location, independently and prior to eye position, and adjust the size of the attended region like a zoom length. However, the theory assumed that the attentional spotlight cannot divide across multiple locations.

21 A an example, eye tracking is used to analyze the way individuals read and then learn to read (see for example, Just and Carpenter, 1980; Baccino and Manunta, 2005) but also the effects of advertising (Pieters, Rosenberg and Wedel, 1999; Pieters, Wedel and Zhang, 2009) and more generally the relations between eye movements and individuals’ behavior: see, e.g. Arieli et al. (2011) who use eye tracking techniques in order to investigate how people choose between two lotteries.

22 Robert Lanham is Professor emeritus of English literature at UCLA. His book The Economics of Attention is about the move from an economic system based on things and objects to an economics of attention where the central commodity is not stuff but style, i.e., what he labels fluff, for style is what competes for our attention amid the din and deluge of new media in order for us to make sense of overflowing information.

23 In particular, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Gregory Bateson insisted on the scarcity of conscious attention, an economy he labelled ‘systemic awareness’, and focused on the cognitive and emotional aspects of ecological knowledge. The notion of ecological knowledge is related to the idea that socio-cultural and ecological relationships link any learning object with its context matter. Because relationships transform both the knower and the known, individual minds may be disconnected from each other and from nature.

24 Herbert A. Simon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 for his pioneering research into the decision-making process within economic organizations, was an American economist and psychologist (with a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago in 1942) whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, computer science, public administration, economics, management, philosophy of science and sociology. He was the Richard King Mellon Professor of Computer Science and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he taught for 52 years. Simon was among the founding fathers of artificial Intelligence, information processing, decision-making, problem-solving, attention economics, organization theory, complex systems, and computer simulation of scientific discovery. He was the first to analyze the architecture of complexity (Simon, 1962). As well as receiving the highest honor possible in economics, he was the recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology in 1993, and the prestigious A. M. Turing Award for his work in computer science (1975).

25 “The process is subconscious pattern recognition based on experiences stored in memory and retrieved when necessary. While short term memory can store only small amount of information, long term memory is, metaphorically speaking, a large encyclopedia with an elaborated index in which information is cross-referenced.” (Frantz, 2003, 270)

26 “Recently the near-decomposability hypothesis has been renamed ‘modularity hypothesis’ and is pervading diverse disciplines, ranging from software design (where the object-oriented programming paradigm is nothing but a prescription of highly modular system) to management science (where largely the same principle are applied to the organization of firms and manufacturing systems).” (Egidi and Marengo, 2004, 342-343). Fodor (1983) is an attempt to apply the modularity hypothesis to cognitive sciences.

27 “I have argued that an epistemology for computers is possible because computers do think.” (Simon, 1989, 19)

28 Interestingly the ideas of memory and similarity are at the basis of the Cased-Based Decision Theory (CBDT) developed by Gilboa and Schmeidler (1995). “CBDT has some common features with the notion of ‘satisficing’ decisions of Simon (1957) and March and Simon (1958), and may be viewed as formalizing this idea.” (612).

29 Weick describes the term enactment as representing the notion that when people act they bring structures and events into existence and set them in action. Weick uses this term in the context of ‘sensemaking’ by managers or employees. He also describes how they can enact ‘limitations’ upon the system to avoid issues or experiences. It is also seen as a form of social construction. To date enactment is related to organizations and their environment and strategic management.

30 Organized anarchies are associated with the so-called “garbage can model” of decision making. They correspond to organizations, such as universities, which fail to adhere to the conditions of more classical models of decision making in some or all of three important ways: preferences are problematic, technology is unclear, or participation is “fluid”, i.e., it involves formal and informal groups at all levels, all interacting at various levels of the organization, all increasing various levels of complexity.

31 The curious context in which Hayek developed his ideas is worth to be reminded. In the winter of 1919-1920 a fuel shortage and forced closure of the University of Vienna presented Hayek with an opportunity to spend a few weeks in Zurich working in the laboratory of the brain anatomist Constantin von Monakow, tracing fiber bundles of the brain (cf. Hayek, 1994, 63-64). A few months later, Hayek wrote the initial working material for The Sensory Order, a student paper manuscript entitled “Beiträge zur Theorie der Entwicklung des Bewusstseins”. As emphasized by Caldwell (2004), Hayek’s endeavor was to challenge the dominant doctrine in psychology known as the “doctrine of psycho-physiological parallelism” endorsed by Ernst Mach and few others in Vienna. Hayek is indeed very skeptical of the existence of one-to-one correspondence between an external stimulus and the experience of a sensation (Caldwell, 2004, 140). Hayek’s interest in the role of knowledge in economics is also illustrated by two famous articles: “Economics and Knowledge” (1937) and “The use of information in society” (1945).

32 Gerald Edelman who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1972 confesses that he has been inspired by some of Hayek’s ideas on neuronal selection: “I must say that I have been deeply gratified by reading a book [Hayek’s The Sensory Order] of which I had not been aware when I wrote my little essay on group selection theory…I was deeply impressed…I recommend this book to your attention [i.e. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences], as an exercise in profound thinking by a man who simply considers knowledge for its own sake. What impressed me most is his understanding that the key to the problem of perception is to comprehend the nature of classification. Taxonomists have struggled with this problem many times, but I think Hayek considered this problem in a broader sense.” (Gerald Edelman, “Through a Computer Darkly: Group Selection and Higher Brain Function”, Bulletin — The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Oct. 1982, 24). Other scientists outside economics have praised Hayek’s contribution. According to Steele (2002), Hayek’s Sensory Order also foreshadows Henry Potkin’s evolutionary epistemology.

33 “As the classification becomes…more ‘general’ and less ‘specific’, the classifying event also becomes more and more definitely a central process while the relations to any particular peripheral response become at the same time more remote and round-about.” (Hayek, 1952, 113).

34 This quotation can be paralleled with Edelman’s one: “A closed universal description of objects is not available to an adaptive creature, even to one with concepts; there is no “voice in the burning bush” telling that animals what the world description should be.” (Edelman, 1989, 32)

35 In passing, this is one of the reasons why Hayek has some difficulty to deal with intentionality and has recourse to the idea of spontaneous order, being the result of human action and not of human design. But this argument should be qualified by taking into account the plasticity and mutability of the classification structure of the brain. The cognitive process, according to Hayek, despite being constrained by tacit rules and its own physiology, has “the capacity for self-conscious and reflective activity” since it is an “active, input-transforming knowledge generating adaptive system.” (Butos and Koppl, 2006, 39)

36 In this perspective, it is interesting to note that Simon praised Hayek for his way to characterize market mechanisms: “No one has characterized market mechanisms better than Friedrich Hayek.” (Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981, 41). The idea of an analogy between the brain and the organization of markets has been a source of inspiration for many researchers in social sciences, and has valuable implications for economic analysis even if, in economics, the interest for cognition and psychology has experiences several setbacks.

37 Early interpretations (see Machlup, 1974 or Runde, 1988) view The Sensory Order as ancillary to the rest Hayek’s work on philosophy, politics, and economics. More recent interpretations (see Birner, 1999 or Vanberg, 2004) consider Hayek’s writings on cognitive psychology mostly as a methodological contribution disconnected from his economics. This is surprising, judging from the central role played by perceptions and expectations in Hayek’s business cycle theory. As Birner puts it: “Contrary to what might expect, however, none of the mental mechanisms of his earlier theory on perception and cognition play a part in his economics.” (Birner, 1999, 43). At the opposite, Caldwell (2004) or Butos and Koppl (2006) seem to consider that The Sensory Order is foundation work in Hayek’s economics. D’Amico and Boettke (2010) endorse a more qualified view, by inversing the causality: “It is Hayek’s vision of the working economy that is the key to understand his theoretical psychology” and not the other way around (D’Amico and Boettke, 2010, 360).

38 Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind and brain, which considers that the brain is holistic, parallel and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. This suggests that the human beings see objects in their entirety before perceiving their component parts.

39 In The Body-Mind Relation, Polanyi writes: “When I point my finger at a wall and call out: ‘Look at this!’ all eyes turn to wall, away from my finger. You are clearly attending to my pointing finger, but only in order to look at something; namely the point to which my finger is directing your attention.” (Polanyi, 1968, 85) The finger is the proximal term although the wall is the distal one.

40 Stereoscopy refers to the techniques used by 3D imaging for creating or enhancing the illusion of depth in an image by means of stereopsis for binocular vision. Most stereoscopic methods present two offset images separately to the left and right eye of the viewer (a metaphor for subsidiary awareness). These two-dimensional are then combined in the brain to give the perception of 3D depth (a metaphor for focal awareness).

41The purpose of this paper is to show that the relation between body and mind has the same logical structure as the relation between clues and the image to which the clues are pointing. I suggest that the body is a subsidiary thing which bears on the mind which is its meaning.” (Polanyi, 1968, 90; italics in the original)

42 See for example Garrouste (2001).

43 For the sake of brevity, we shall not review this literature. Cf. the website at for a bibliography.

44 See Kraut et al. (2002 2005), Van Alstyne, Loder, and Wash (2004), Zandt (2001) and Loder, Van Alstyne and Wash (2004) for a comparison of these alternative solutions.

45 CRM is a widely implemented model for managing a company’s interactions with customers, clients, and sales prospects. It involves using technology to organize, automate, and synchronize business processes—principally sales activities, but also those for marketing, customer service, and technical support. The overall goals are to find, attract, and win new clients; nurture and retain those the company already has; entice former clients back into the fold; and reduce the costs of marketing and client service.

46 Attentiontrust is an example of VRM practices. It consists of a set of principles to govern the attention economy on the self-ownership of the data we create, and specialized software to regulate their use. Specifically, AttentionTrust believes that we all have the right 1) to own at least a copy of our data, 2) to store that data where we want and move it when we want, 3) to exchange it for something of value to us, and 4) to know what others intend to do with our data, so that we can make informed decisions about who should have access to it. ( generally, VRM is a category of business activity made possible by software tools that provide customers with both independence from vendors and better means for engaging with vendors and is conceived as the necessary complement of CRM.

47 The experimental design derives from previous work by Camerer et al. (1993), Camerer and Johnson (2004) and Costa-Gomes (2001). It uses the “Mouselab” programming language to measure subjects’ information acquisition. Information is hidden behind boxes on a computer screen and subjects have to use the computer mouse to open (or close) the boxes in order to get (costly) information that helps solving a problem (of income maximization) in a given limited period of time. On the one hand, Mouselab records permit to know the order and duration of information acquisition. On the other hand, since one screen box can be open at any time, it is possible to know what information is acquired on a second-by-second basis throughout the experiment.

48 In particular, they show that subjects tend to become more and more likely to end an analysis of a problem the more boxes they open holding fixed the economic benefit of additional analysis (what they call the ‘box heuristics’).

49 See Garrouste and Langlois (1997) for an appraisal of the problem of interpretation of information, and therefore, of its derived economic value, that economists have to take into account seriously.

50 See Boettke (2002).

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Agnès Festré et Pierre Garrouste, « The ‘Economics of Attention’: A History of Economic Thought Perspective », Œconomia, 5-1 | 2015, 3-36.

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Agnès Festré et Pierre Garrouste, « The ‘Economics of Attention’: A History of Economic Thought Perspective », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.1139

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Agnès Festré

University Nice-Sophia Antipolis and GREDEG,

Pierre Garrouste

University Nice-Sophia Antipolis and GREDEG,

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