The Pursuit of Attention

By Charles Derber
pub. 1979

This is an old book, originally published in 1979, but is not only still accurate decades later, but I’d argue even more applicable in 2015. Author and Professor, Charles Derber, explains how attention can be treated like a resource passed back and forth between individuals. Given this analogy, Derber argues there is a pervasive narcissistic and attention-deprivation phenomenon flourishing within the United States. Lack of equitable attention-giving between individuals in both personal and business environments is the manifestation of this phenomenon. Derber argues first that a typical conversation between two or more people in contemporary American culture is, subtly and routinely competitive in nature. Moreover, the driving forces behind this inability of individuals to empathize is due to underlying economic competition and insecurity within daily life.

It’s a remarkable read, and offers a chilling realization to anyone who’s lived in America or the Western world. That being said, Derber’s research only touches interpersonal communication within the United States. It would be interesting to see results of a cross-cultural comparison study because I’d be surprised if this type of phenomenon is limited to just the U.S. or Western societies.

Attention as a Resource

Without attention being exchanged and distributed, there is no social life. A unique social resource, attention is created anew in each encounter and allocated in ways deeply affecting human interactions. The quality of any interaction depends on the tendencies of those involved to seek and share attention. Competition develops when people seek to focus attention mainly on themselves; cooperation occurs when the participants are willing and able to give it. 1Derber 1

Psychologists have treated attention as a fundamental human need. John Bowlby and René Spitz, for example, while studying the emotional development of infants, concluded that the baby’s need for attention is similar to that for food. Infants who receive less than a required minimum of attention may die or develop grotesque physical and emotional aberrations. 2Derber 10

Attention can be understood as an interactional currency subject to distributive justice or inequity.3Derber 41

Conversational Narcissism

As the number of people increases, it is more likely that one or more will get little or no attention, this being reported frequently in conversations involving more than two people… In conversations between two people attention is less scarce and problems of invisibility less intractable.4Derber 19

There are ritual prohibitions [against monopolizing conversation] reflected in apologies when blatantly violated. Common ones are “Well, enough about myself. What have you been up to?” or “Now I want to hear all about you.” However, because these offerings frequently are made near the end of conversation, they may serve to make ritual amends without significantly increasing reciprocity.5Derber 19

Conversational narcissism involves preferential use of the shift-response and underutilization of the support-response6Derber 25, e.g.

John:I saw Jane today on the street.
Mary:I haven’t seen her in a week. (shift-response)

John:I saw Jane today on the street.
Mary:Oh, how’s she doing? (support-response)

We can distinguish between active and passive narcissistic practices. The active practices involve repeated use of the shift-response to subtly turn the topics of others into topics about oneself. The passive practices involve minimal use of support-responses so that others’ topics are not sufficiently reinforced and so are terminated prematurely.7Derber 25

Passive practices involve minimal use and differential use of… support-responses so that the topics of others are prematurely concluded. Minimal use contributes to the termination of a topic by withholding or delaying support-responses. Differential use means that a weaker support-response is chosen when a stronger one could be used.8Derber 31, e.g.

Mary: Oh, I had the most awful headache all day. Tom was awful at work and, uh, just kept bothering me and bothering me. And Louise, too, more of the same. I’m so sick of it.
John: Yeah. (passive-differential)

Power and Attention

One aspect of class hierarchy is that members of subordinate classes are regarded as less worth of attention in relations with members of dominant classes and so are subjected to subtle but systematic face-to-face deprivations. The directing of attention to those defined by their class as “better” or more important lies at the very heart of class power as played out in everyday social relations and suggests a new vehicle for investigating the meaning of class itself.9Derber 42

Studies of talking time do not sustain stereotypes of the “talkative female” and the “silent male.” They indicate that men tend to speak more often and for longer periods of time, while women more frequently take the listening role. (This has led feminists to suggest that the “talkative woman” is simply one who talks as much as a man.)10Derber, Soskin, Hilpert 57

The common opinion that women have a greater need to socialize and to talk reflects their greater attention deprivation in their institutional roles; women depend heavily on conversation as compensatory arena.11Derber 59

For some men, the requirements of masculinity lead not only to inhibition of weeping, but also inability to open up about personal difficulties, or even to talk about themselves at all. Such males frequently assume the role of therapist in their personal conversations, becoming uncommonly good listeners with women, but at the same time maintaining their sense of masculinity by identifying with the power of the therapist’s role. However, the pretense that they have no needs and are fully in control of themselves can lead to a subtle form of attention-deprivation.12Derber 62

Individualism, Economics, and Attention

In studying everyday conversation, I have found a pervasive tendency for individuals to seek predominant attention for themselves. I shall suggest this pattern is rooted in an American cultural individualism which encourages self-interest and self-absorption. 13Derber 1

… individualism is a key factor in the organization of social relations in modern Western societies, suggesting that the norms of egoism, self-interest, and competition that prevail in the capitalist marketplace significantly affect interactions and character in the United States and other contemporary Western societies. 14Derber & Fromm 5

In America… who gets attention in informal conversation is determined primarily by competing individual initiatives. Each individual is responsible for himself, with his share of attention determined largely by his own efforts and skills.15Derber 13

There is a striking parallel between the individualistic and competitive processes of attention-getting and certain forms of economic behavior. In a classic capitalist economic model rewards are allocated through competitive individual initiative with no limits placed on what share of the total rewards (within a given market) any individual (or firm) can gain. This leads to inequalities determined by relative competitive power rather than needs. Similarly, in informal interactions there is no assurance that each individual will get the attention he wants because competitive individual initiative again decides allocation, with no limits on how much (or how little) anyone should receive. Certain people can dominate or monopolize the attention while others may be unsuccessful in claiming even the minimal share required to feel included.16Derber 17

Erich Fromm has theorized that a shared character structure develops in each society, a “social character” that is a response to the requirements of the social order and best suited for survival and success within it. The self-oriented character type develops a highly egocentric view of the world and is motivated primarily by self-interest. To cope with social and economic insecurity bred by individualism, he becomes pre-occupied with himself. His “attention-getting” psychology is thus rooted in a broad self-absorption engendered by social conditions highly developed in contemporary America.17Derber 22

The compulsive preoccupation with being seen, or simply with being visible, suggests that we must be dealing with underlying fantasies of not being seen, of being invisible.18R.D. Laing, 87

The self-orientation that pervades American social character is rooted in a “social” individualism that grows out of economic individualism: each person functions as an independent, isolated “self,” whose survival and success depend on his own resources. With a few exceptions, all people exist apart from any encompassing community upon which their fortunes depend. Since the individual is thrown onto his own resources, he must of necessity be primarily focused on himself and on satisfying his own needs.19Derber 89

In America, economic forces and burdens lie at the heart of self-orientation. People are cut adrift from any community providing economic security. Thrown into a labor market that rewards individual performance while making employment precarious and highly competitive, each individual must become self-oriented simply to subsist and succeed.20Derber 91

Self-orientation becomes the consciousness of those most mobile and therefore least integrated in the community. Economically, it is expressed through such institutions as the “career,” which are ways of organizing motivation and attention around the aims of the self. Particularly in the dominant classes, where prospects for mobility are strongest, careerism and visions of economic and social aggrandizement become the basis of an intensified self-absorption, while in subordinate classes, where vestiges of community (such as neighborhood and church) are stronger, self-orientation is less developed.21Derber 93

Among the most career oriented, topics of conversation revert invariably to one’s work, achievements, and difficulties. Conversational narcissism takes the form of establishing whose career circumstance is more deserving of attention. Underlying these dynamics is a profound need to gain attention and support for a “self” excessively vulnerable because of its dissaffiliation and lack of community support.22Derber 93

Under conditions of greater economic security and reduced economic competition… individualism in American society may diminish, permitting greater concern with others.23Derber 98

Further reading

  • John Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health. René Spitz, “Anaclitic Depression,” in Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.
  • Escape From Freedom & The Sane Society, Erich Fromm
  • The Remarkable Rocket, Oscar Wilde
  • Narcissistic America, Christopher Lasch
  • The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett

References   [ + ]

1, 13. Derber 1
2. Derber 10
3. Derber 41
4, 5. Derber 19
6, 7. Derber 25
8. Derber 31
9. Derber 42
10. Derber, Soskin, Hilpert 57
11. Derber 59
12. Derber 62
14. Derber & Fromm 5
15. Derber 13
16. Derber 17
17. Derber 22
18. R.D. Laing, 87
19. Derber 89
20. Derber 91
21, 22. Derber 93
23. Derber 98

Leave a Reply