This is your mind on overload!

This is your mind on overload!

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

We live in a noisy world.  Between email, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the internet, we are simply awash in information. The economic theory, rational expectation, assumes that people fully and quickly process all freely available information. Unfortunately, humans only have a finite processing capacity. Enter the theory of rational inattention, which recognizes our limited ability to process information.  Rational inattention theory, like rational expectations, recognizes that information is freely available, but since it can’t be quickly absorbed people need to make choices about what they’ll pay attention to.  Attention becomes a resource, and as a scarce resource, it needs to be budgeted wisely[1].Budgeting translates to filtering.  Filtering is one reason that some process improvement messages get heard and some seem to go in one ear and out of the other.

As change agents, we have a better chance of being heard if we recognize that the potential impact of rational inattention. Our audience is not going to be moved to action if 1) they are not aware, and 2) don’t pay attention, both prerequisites to taking action. In his book The Attention Economy, Tom Davenport outlines a model that begins with awareness, which is then filtered by attention to generate specifics from which action can be taken. This simple model helps us understand that getting someone to take action has prerequisites.

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How do we break through the wall of noise? Yell louder? One popular approach is to wrap the message for change around a burning platform.  The burning platform is a metaphor for a problem that if not solved will cause significant pain or anguish. There is data that shows we respond to negative shocks faster than to positive shocks[2] This means that our audience’s natural risk aversion may induce them to process negative news faster than positive news. In other words, a solution that solves a current, real pain will be heard faster than a promise of future benefits. Instability is change’s ally while stability is changes natural enemy (if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it).

Rational inattention helps change agents understand why some messages are heard and some aren’t. Our audiences will make the most of available information by analyzing those bits that are relevant to their decisions and to disregard the rest. Our goal when packaging change is to increase the incentive to be aware of the need to change and then to pay attention to the message. On many occasions we will convince our audiences that the world is not only noisy, but unstable so they can hear our message.


[1] Economic Letter, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Volume 6 No. 3 March 2011, p 2

[2] “Some International Evidence on Output Inflation Tradeoffs,” Robert E. Lucas, Jr., American Economic Review , Vol. 63, No 3, 1973, pp 326-334