Collective Attention

Less than a year ago, an alarmed and alarming 16-year-old captured the world’s attention when she declared “entire ecosystems are collapsing; how dare you look away.” Then came covid-19 – and people looked away. “Everybody’s got such a short attention span,” remarked American musician Bob Dylan.

On 23 September 2019, Greta Thunberg stood before a sea of news cameras at a United Nations climate conference in New York City and told world leaders: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. How dare you continue to look away.” Within days, internet searches on “climate change” soared. It seemed at the time that a page may turn in human history: that consensus may build to finally act on industrialized self-extinction.

Then the page turned from the darkening skies to what’s too small to see with the eyes. Global attention riveted in the spring of 2020 to a cold virus spreading around the world. Again humanity was rapt with concern.

The illusion of limiting this uncontrollable microbe captivated a species readily given to indulging fantasy as fact. Worries over climate change got put on the back burner of collective attention.

The mind scratches the itch of attention with worry over one thing at a time. “Simply directing attention to an environmental risk, even momentarily, can make it seem more frightening and worthy of mitigation,” remarks psychologist Leaf Van Boven. “On the flip side, if you are not actively paying attention, the risk seems less dangerous and less important to address.”

“If a threat seems physically distant, far in the future, too abstract or if we are just too distracted to notice it, our perception of risk declines. Climate change is the prototypical example,” Van Boven continues.

The mind internally employs the concept of physical space in assigning its attention. Psychospace is the subjective experience that something is close or far away. Israeli psychologists Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope theorized psychospace in 1998. The more distant something is construed to be, the more abstractly one thinks of it, and vice versa. Whatever is the focus of attention is always a concrete experience. Actuality is itself amorphous.

This basic mental mechanism of psychospace acts as an amplifier for collective concern and action. The thrust of social movements and political campaigns is focusing public attention on an advertised urgent issue.

Humanity is withering from industrialized pollution and resultant global warming. But right now the Collective don’t care because they might catch a cold.


Ishi Nobu, “Construal,” in The Hub of Being (2019).

Hye-Jin Paek & Thomas Hove, “Risk perceptions and risk characteristics,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia (March 2017).

Kellen Mrkva et al, “Attention increases environmental risk perception,” Journal of Experimental Psychology (2020).

Waning attention to climate change amid pandemic could have lasting effects,” ScienceDaily (5 August 2020).