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ADHD or the Victim of Attention Economy: Navigating the Blurred Lines

The excess of information results in a deficit of the one thing it requires the most - your attention.


distracted person, difficulty to focus.
The pervasive misuse and overuse of psychological diagnostic terms are omnipresent in today's society. A coworker who favors organization may be hyperbolically labeled as OCD, while challenging conversations are often described as traumatizing or instances of gaslighting by narcissistic colleagues.The popularization of psychological terms appears to have spiraled out of control. By diluting their meanings, we not only render them inaccurate but also risk trivialising their real impact, potentially harming those who genuinely suffer from the given conditions.
One term, in particular, is ever-present, frequently heard, and widely discussed: ADHD. It seems like everywhere we turn, someone is talking about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Our children are diagnosed with it, and many adults realize they may have been masking it for years. ADHD is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. It goes beyond mere distraction or difficulty focusing; it significantly impairs a person’s ability to function in daily life. Understanding ADHD requires a nuanced approach, recognizing that while more people are becoming aware of the condition, it’s important to maintain the accuracy and integrity of its diagnosis. With no clear biomarkers for ADHD, diagnosis relies heavily on recognizing signs and symptoms, leaving a significant amount of interpretation to the clinician. This ambiguity can result in both underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis. The heightened awareness and familiarity of physicians and the public with ADHD have contributed to its increased prevalence. Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have played a significant role in raising awareness about mental health. Many individuals credit these platforms with helping them recognize their symptoms and seek treatment. However, the internet and social media also harbor misinformation, with over half of ADHD-related content on TikTok found to be misleading, primarily shared by non-healthcare providers.
The subjective nature of our experiences can sometimes lead us to make snap judgments and self-diagnose, e.g., with ADHD. If you're struggling to maintain focus and concentration, it might indeed indicate ADHD tendencies. In such cases, seeking professional help is crucial for accurate diagnosis and treatment. Attention Economy and the Stolen Focus
A person struggling with attention
Our attention is a finite resource; each person has only so much of it. We pay with this valuable currency of focus when we attend to something. Our attention is also a single-thread resource; the human brain can process only one or two thoughts at a time. When we engage with information, we allocate our attention to specific items at the expense of others. In economic terms, human attention is considered a scarce commodity, making it especially valuable. This understanding led to the concept of the Attention Economy - an economic model focused on competing for and monetizing our attention. Although this term was coined over four decades ago by Herbert Alexander Simon, one of the founders of cognitive science and a pioneer of artificial intelligence, in 1971, it is more relevant today than ever.
Intersection of ADHD and the Attention Economy
With the digitalization of private life, various platforms constantly compete for our focus. Some technology is even intentionally designed to distract us—for profit, as their business model relies on our engagement. Social media platforms, inspired by behavioral economics, use persuasive design elements to keep us engaged. Tactics like infinite scrolling, which provides an endless stream of content, leverage the Zeigarnik effect (incomplete tasks create tension and motivate us to continue), and social media notifications exploit loss aversion and create a fear of missing out (FOMO). We don’t want to miss updates, so we stay engaged. We pay with our attention even more because of social proof, where media platforms display metrics like likes, shares, and followers, or personalization algorithms that tailor content based on our preferences.
Similarly, our professional environment also contributes to downgrading our ability to focus. Open-plan offices, while designed to foster collaboration, can create constant background noise and frequent interruptions from colleagues. Digital communication tools like email, instant messaging, and project management software, intended to streamline work, instead bombard us with notifications and demands for immediate responses. “Multitasking” - juggling multiple screens, apps, and tasks simultaneously, is often encouraged, but it taxes our working memory. Moreover, the pressure to be constantly available and responsive can prevent deep, uninterrupted work. As a result, our attention becomes fragmented and our focus stolen, making it harder to concentrate on a single task and perform Deep Work - engaging in complex problem-solving and producing high-quality work that is relevant to our goals.

Information Overload: Challenges for the Brain
Eleven tabs are open on your web browser, and three different messaging apps are lighting up with new messages. Meanwhile, a reminder for another meeting in 15 minutes pops up as you're scrolling through Instagram. You then switch to another app, trying to make sense of your to-do list, which is scattered across three different tools, post-it notes, and a hardcover agenda. As we are flooded with information from every angle, our ability to discern credible material becomes compromised. Why?
Filtering Problem:
In the face of information overload, our brain's prefrontal cortex, tasked with filtering out irrelevant information, becomes overwhelmed. We struggle to filter relevant content from noise and are kept in a state of indecision, unable to prioritize tasks and activities. As explained by Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist specializing in technology, addiction, and productivity, “This uncertainty wreaks havoc with our rapid perceptual categorization system, causes stress, and leads to decision overload.”
Processing Information: Amount, Speed, and Depth
While our brains are naturally adept at handling one task at a time, the demands of multitasking often push them beyond their limits. As a result, our brains rapidly switch between tasks, leading to a shallower understanding, poorer quality, and slower execution of each activity. Research indicates that our brains operate most effectively at a slower pace. When driven by the fear of missing out (FOMO) and rushing through information, our comprehension tends to decrease. This propensity for quick consumption often steers us towards simpler material. Furthermore, the constant availability of information contributes to a high churn rate—our tendency to rapidly shift focus from one topic to another. This behavior can partly be attributed to our brain's autopilot mode, a survival mechanism designed to monitor environmental changes. While beneficial in ancient times for detecting danger and opportunities, in the modern world, it makes us susceptible to distraction. We find ourselves scrolling through social media feeds in a trance-like state, seeking instant gratification. The dopamine rush that follows is more alluring than engaging in deep, focused work, which typically lacks the novelty and immediacy of online content. Consequently, our capacity to process information is significantly diminished, leaving us with only a superficial grasp of complex topics. What we train is the habit of being distracted—jumping from one task to another without delving deeply into real understanding. The more we practice this, the harder it becomes to maintain our focus and effectively address complex problems.
The surge in self-diagnosed ADHD cases could be the result of the union between the attention economy and information overload. The constant switching of attention, characteristic of our digital age, can mimic the distractibility associated with ADHD, prompting us to misdiagnose ourselves with Attention Deficit Disorder. However, in many cases, the real issue may simply be feeling overwhelmed by an excess of information, coming at us too fast, and a lack of strategies on how to properly manage our attention.  While information overload is challenging for all of us, individuals with ADHD often struggle even more than neurotypical brains, which might require even more deliberate attention (no pun intended) to navigate and shiled themeselves from attention economy.
  
Regardless of the underlying cause—whether it's ADHD or information overload—implementing strategies to enhance information literacy can be beneficial. Stay tuned for our upcoming article, where we'll explore practical and easy-to-use tools and techniques for managing information overload effectively.



REFERENCE: 1. Abdelnour E, Jansen MO, Gold JA. ADHD Diagnostic Trends: Increased Recognition or Overdiagnosis? Mo Med. 2022 Sep-Oct;119(5):467-473. PMID: 36337990; PMCID: PMC9616454.

2. Giraldo-Luque, S., & Fernández-Rovira, C. (2020, October 7). Economy of Attention: Definition and Challenges for the Twenty-First Century. 3. Floriani, D.E. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Corporate Sustainability in the Digital Era. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-42412-1_154. 4. Levitin, D. J. (2014). The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Dutton Adult.



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