Focus Contagion

FThere’s a powerful effect that surely has a name, so please tell me if you know! Related terms include “gaze following”, “joint attention”, “information cascades” (fads), and “social proof” (see comments below) … but maybe it could be called the Hitler Effect. 🙂

The obvious aspect is that people assume that whatever a lot of other people are looking at is worthy of their attention.

What isn’t obvious is that the effect is nonlinear, in my opinion. In some sense it is cubic (power of 3), meaning that it could be very powerful.

In particular, if we perceive the other people as closely resembling ourselves (w1), and if they appear to express great interest (w2), and if our first impression is positive (w3), most of us are generally willing to spend an inordinately large amount of time and effort following the topic.

The topic might be another stupid thing Donald Trump said, or some pointless quirky murder in the news, it doesn’t matter, people will invest great amounts of time if they think many similar others are passionately doing the same thing, and you haven’t decided beforehand that it is ridiculous.

To get mathematical, the value (V) that you as typical person are likely assign to a topic (T), based on others’ perceived attention, seems to be something like:
V(T) = sum of (m * w1 * w2 * w3) over all others, where:
m = number of people, or subjective size of a organization
w1 = perceived closeness or similarity of the other person(s)
w2 = perceived value expressed by the other person(s)
w3 = initial perceived value to you

The w factors are probabilistic weights ranging from +100% (max positive) to 0% (neutral) to -100% (max negative), allowing for negative results.

w1 represents closeness or similarity of other person(s):
o Someone close or similar to you could have a w1 = 100%. 
o Someone you hate could have w1 = -100%. 
o Somebody that you know nothing about has w1 = 0%.

w2 represents the value that the other person(s) express:
o A strong positive valuation would have a w2 = 100%. 
o A strong negative valuation would have a w2 = -100%. 
o Somebody that you know nothing about has w1 = 0%.

w3 represents the value you initially perceive in the topic, independent of others paying attention (parallel with w2). Thus -100% means you previously thought the topic is a total waste of time, 0% means decidedly not caring, and +100% is very important to you.

Most people will come to a completely new topic they see in the news with a low but nonzero w3, so the first two weights (w1 and w2) should usually have the strongest effect.

This means that if we perceive a lot of people (m) to be passionate about a topic, we’ll follow it, whether we know it to be worthy of the time or not. And because we generally read or watch news in private, we are very easily influenced by what the news tells us about other people in the audience.

If you look for it, you’ll often see Canadians told what Canadians are excited or concerned about, investors told what investors think, and liberals told what liberals think. Supposed experts are often interviewed to tell us what we think, or individuals “on the street” are selectively interviewed to reinforce a point that supposedly comes from us, most often expressing an intense opinion. This process is relentless.

This theory supports the observations of Gustave Le Bon, about crowds submerging into one, and opinions becoming contagious, turning the crowd into a mob. Other such theories likewise match, but none seem to pick out these factors.

References:
“Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki
https://wisdomofcrowds.blogspot.com
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25125428
https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13414-017-1303-z

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