Attention from others is something that most people cannot help responding to. The question is not if people like attention but rather how much attention and from whom. Of course there are those who are anxious when given attention in group settings although these same people are happy to get the attention of those they love or care for. Attention symbolizes care, respect and worthiness. Psychologists have known and studied the power of attention for many decades. Experiments have, for example, looked at how a person’s behaviour can be controlled through attention. In one experiment, psychologists instructed students to pay attention to their teacher when he/she was on the left side of the classroom and to ignore him/her when they moved to the right side. By the end of the class, the teacher taught only from the left side of the classroom. This happened without the teachers’ conscious awareness!
Not all attention is created equal. Context is always an important aspect of any experience. Recently, Susan Boyle of the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent” was thrust into the limelight. The attention that Ms. Boyle received was not from people who know and love her, something that she apparently desires, but rather the attention she garnered was for having a great voice and looking undesirable at the same time. This combination, which would have been considered rude and hurtful to point out to her in a personal relationship, was freely bantered about amongst hundreds of millions of people around the world. The psychological tension that came with feeling as though people really care for you on the one hand, and the insensitive reasons behind the attention you’re receiving on the other, made her post-show visit to a psychiatric hospital predictable.
As mentioned above, attention is powerful and can be used to influence and change peoples’ behaviour. While this can be a good thing when the people giving you attention know you and care about your well being, it can also be a deceptive, seductive and ultimately disillusioning experience. Teaching kids to know the difference is one of the challenges of being a parent. Peers can often influence behaviour through the promise of attention and friendship. Kids need to know and trust themselves. They also need to know the difference between attention that is “light and less filling” and the attention that comes through a caring relationship with another.
Reality shows can leave some participants psychologically compromised. There are even therapists that specialize in treating people who have had negative experiences on these shows. You can read more about that here.
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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.