Attention Amplifier

I have been at a McDonald’s restaurant recently. The noise level in such a fast-food restaurant is usually a little higher, but this time it was very loud, too loud actually. The source of the disturbance was identified quickly, the kids’ corner. McDonald’s restaurants usually have a corner or room for kids, a little play area. Many times with a little slide and other possibilities to park a kid. The longer the kids want to stay, the higher the chance to buy more food, maybe another drink or ice cream? Now here in this case it was a little slide, occupied by a bunch of kids, arguing heavily about different topics.

Observing those little humans made me realize a couple of things. First, this little ecosystem in that corner is a snapshot of our society. Different kids behave in different ways there, offensive, defensive, open-minded and interested, stubborn and unreasonable, sociable or shy, brave and cowardly, the entire spectrum. And on a higher abstraction level they behaved like any other group in our society. You could map those behavior pattern easily to any other setup, like a bunch of politicians debating over a certain topic, or a group of IT people reviewing source code. Another example would be a group of moms waiting in front of the kindergarten to pick up their offspring. The group dynamics are the same everywhere, fascinating. It is fun to observe how people are trying to find their place in the group. Some fight for this place, others convince with knowledge, again others don’t care and do their own thing. The dynamics in such groups is almost predictable and fun to observe. And it is independent from age, profession, education. So cool. Those toddlers are testing which approach works well for them, with copying seen behavior or with simple ‘trial and error’. What works well will be included into one’s repertoire and established as a pattern to be used throughout their entire life.

A second realization is that there are different ways to get attention from the other members of the group. And even in this little kids’ corner you could observe different approaches. Being able to get the attention of the other kids is mapped to the own importance in the group. And we all want to be important, in one way or another. So how did they achieve that? The simple case is plain communication. Tell what you have to tell and see who is listening. Now it’s not hard to see the dilemma here. If everybody is doing so, everybody will talk and nobody will listen. Hence you have to come up with a different plan. And most likely you will try out what worked for you in the past, in your family. And one of the more common approaches seem to be to increase your volume. If you are louder than the others, the chances you are heard are higher. So far the theory. The louder, the more important is the assumption. But where is that coming from?

Now imagine an average family, sitting together for dinner. Mom and dad are discussing the happenings of the day. Junior is bored by that and wants to share his opinion as well. Now he starts to interrupt the parents. They are arguing and don’t hear the little agitator. He realizes that and keeps interrupting, trying to be a little louder every time, in the hope to get heard. The parents do hear that of course, but want to finish their discussion first, before they start a different topic with the little boy. So they keep ignoring him. The show goes on for a while and the boy gets louder and louder. At some point in time the parents are so annoyed by this, that they turn to the little intruder to either listen to him or to yell at him. Whatever way, the boy got attention. Positive attention or negative attention doesn’t matter. The point is he got attention. And what do you think is the lesson he has learned now? Exactly, The longer you disturb, the louder and more annoying you become, the higher the chances are to get the attention you want. So he repeats that approach in similar setups and soon he is establishing a pattern. What works must be good. And all this taught by the parents. Fascinating dynamics. And of course the kid will use that technique whenever appropriate, e.g. in the playground corner at McDonald’s. The unfortunate side effect, the noise and annoyance level hits not only the target group, it hits everybody in the near as well. But you can’t blame the kid. That’s a clear parenting failure. So if you want to throw your burger or fries, target at the parents, not at the kid. And the sad thing is, the little human will use this approach most likely as a grown-up as well. Observe your next business meeting or sports club gathering more consciously. You’ll spot those people easily.

But there are other ways to get attention as well. Not every kid is loud. Other families establish other patterns. Some try to get attention with being smarter than others. Those kids come very often from families with lecturing parents. Nobody likes smart-asses, but if they are right, it’s hard to argue. Their approach is, if nobody likes you, you have to be right. Sheldon Cooper’s approach. They explain the world to you, if you want to know or not. Other kids learned that you can get attention through expressing emotions. Start to cry and mommy will come. Look sad and dad will be there for you. Isn’t that great? Such kids learn soon to trigger or fake such attention rewarding emotional behaviors. If it works at home, why shouldn’t it work in a play corner? And they keep using that technique while growing up.

Again others use a completely different approach, physical enforcement. If he doesn’t listen, punch him. A kick will do too. This will get you his attention, for sure. If he is from your kind, the attention will be expressed as punch as well. But hey, attention is attention. You all know the school bullies. Fishing for attention in violent ways works for them as adults too, of course.

But you might also earn attention in form of a confused facial expression or a sudden rain of tears. Job done. There are so many options. It’s a beautiful mix of different approaches, isn’t it? This is such a fascinating social experiment happening there. I almost forgot to finish my burger.

And this is just how to get the attention of group members. Now imagine the next level, how to influence the group, to convince them of my opinion. The variety of possible options is broad. There are so many ways to enforce a behavioral change unto the receiver of the message. Would be a long list here. But let me give you a few examples. If you have friends which chose to reproduce, you can observe many different styles how to raise a kid. Most of the time parents want their kids t behave in a certain way, or not to behave in a certain way. Initiating such a desired behavioral change is tricky. Some parents try to convince a 2-year old not to throw the empty yogurt cup on the street with a monologue about environment pollution. Might work, or might produce big eyes in a puzzled face. Others try to blackmail. “If you don’t finish your oatmeal gruel, there will not be any dessert for you!” Most kids think then, screw the dessert, if I finish that gruel I won’t live till dessert anyway. But there are more efficient blackmails too: “If you don’t clean your room, I won’t give you today’s wireless password!”

Another possibility is bribery. Very effective with children. “Look what a nice chocolate I have here. It’s yours when you help me with the vacuum cleaner.” And there are no limits: “If you pass that exam, I’ll take you to that leisure park you like. ” Or “If you finish school, I’ll buy you a car.”

As you can see, there are so many ways. And now think, the kids are observing this and what do they do? Of course they learn and adapt. Soon they’ll play the game to their advantages: “I vacuum cleaned my room, may I get some chocolate now?” Or in the blackmailing case: “Hey dad, please buy me that cool PS4 game and I won’t tell mommy that you flirted with the neighbor lady.”  And then the next level, they are using those techniques on other kids of course. “Give me that shovel or I tell my mom that you destroyed my sandcastle!”. Simple mechanics, life can be so easy.

And all boils down how the parents deal with their kids. They shape those behaviors and mechanisms. Of course they will be adapted with every interaction later on and other family members and friends play a role here too. But your parents set the  fundament, the base of your general behavior. They are shaping you in the first few years, establishing patterns your are still following today. And the funny thing is, if you that consciously or not. You are giving your kids the behavioral traveling fare. You are in charge, and you are to blame. Fascinating. Isn’t it?