The Evolution of Attention

As soon as I started tracking analytics, I found myself watching the way that I browse websites and read marketing e-mails. I couldn’t help it! I began taking mental note of practices that made me want to click away from a page, or subject lines that made me more apt to open correspondence.

While it can make for an interesting method of self-analysis, this is a very unscientific and biased way of measuring what captures attention. And that’s precisely why I was so taken with Ben Parr’s new book, Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention (March 2013, Harper One).

Ryan McGuire/Bells Design

Ryan McGuire/Bells Design

In it, the venture capitalist and former Mashable editor provides scientific reasons for the kinds of attention-grabbing phenomena we see all the time. One of my favorites is an explanation of why so many of the “Buy Now” or “Contact Me” buttons we see on websites are red. Parr explains the fascinating evolutionary reason behind why you should consider choosing red, orange, or yellow for the call-to-action button on your website. The theory behind it is that when humans were trying to survive during prehistoric times in the jungle, we were drawn to notice these colors as standing out against the green background of our daily life: “In the wild, life-giving red berries stand out against the green of grasses and forests. If leaves were naturally purple, red would be a terrible color for capturing attention. This also explains why red, yellow, and orange website buttons stand out—they contrast better against the white and gray backgrounds.”

There are tons of examples like this one. Parr explains why people can’t resist cliffhangers (and how to craft one that won’t backfire) and how mentioning well-respected people who work with you can boost your reputation (and how to do it without sounding like a name-dropper). But the part that I thought would be most useful to those in the real estate industry comes in the last few chapters. Parr explains a sure-fire way to engender trust in people who don’t know you yet. In the beginning of the book, he cites studies that show people are more likely to pay attention to someone they trust, and at the end of the book, he explains the type of behavior we as human being require from the people we trust.

Parr splits these expectations into three needs: one for recognition, one for empathy, and one for validation. His definitions of these needs are key to evaluating your relationships with clients and prospects. Ask yourself these three questions to see how well you are connecting with clients:

  • Acknowledge: What do I do to demonstrate my recognition of others? How much time and energy do I devote to remembering names and key aspects of other people’s existence?
  • Validate: Do I take the time to find out what’s special or different about the people I meet? How do I recognize what is important about them as human beings?
  • Empathize: How do I show that I care? Do I really understand what matters most to each person I encounter?

What really got me about this last section is that, while this is a book about capturing the attentions of others, Parr rightfully emphasizes the fact that you can’t get other people’s attention unless you’re giving it out yourself.

For anyone the least bit interested in learning more about how and why people pay attention, though, I recommend reading the whole book. It’s packed with the science behind how our brains work, and there are more moments of fascination than I have time to share in a short blog post. After all, I wouldn’t want to wear out your attention span.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]

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  1. Thanks Meg, good info, now I need to go buy the book.