In his groundbreaking BBC documentary One Pair of Eyes[1], Idries Shah says, “An excitable person – give him a lot of attention and his views will become less pronounced… He may become a much calmer, a more interesting person. He may learn to give you attention, too. And this is the basis of civilisation. Not just culture, not cultured behaviour, but civilisation. It’s that important.”

He likens the giving and receiving of human attention to the grooming behaviour of primates. “Grooming – a lower level activity like your heart beating – just a pump – but without it, you’d die.”

Forty or more years later and the world was beginning to catch up with what Shah had observed. A 2014 study at the University of British Columbia found that the withdrawal of attention – ostracism – is psychologically more harmful than bullying. Negative attention is better than no attention.

In a 2003 study, by Duke University Professor Dr Mark Leary[2], it was discovered that in 15 school shootings, 13 involved social rejection of the shooters… It’s that important.

Leary says, “It’s like the whole field misses this centrally important part of human life.”

As Dr C Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky[3] says, “Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water…”[4]

Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian newspaper about how Idries Shah’s focus on the attention factor usefully accounts for the powerfully negative effect of social exclusion. “Our failure to understand attention routinely lands us in trouble, Shah believed, because it leaves us at the mercy of anyone, however unpleasant, who’s willing to bestow some. When people feel ignored, a political leader who makes them feel acknowledged will acquire their support, even if he’s an egomaniacal tyrant with no plans to improve their lives. A controlling or otherwise abusive partner will doubtless pay you plenty of attention, even as he or she destroys you.”

The information that we all need attention, that bestowing attention and receiving it are necessary, is slowly permeating – but the culture is against it. Perform any internet search on attention and the biggest selection will reflect the grudging view that children should not be deprived of attention, but also that a far bigger problem is posed by people with ‘attention-seeking’ disorders. It’s as if it is ‘unadult’ to even need attention. This view reinforces the comment by Mark Leary – that people seem blind to the fact that we all need attention, that the right amount of attention is not just good, it’s essential for being psychologically healthy.

It’s true that just as over eating and overdrinking (even water) can cause death, so, too, can too much attention lead to maladaptive behaviour. But a far, far bigger problem is the fact that a vast number of people in the so-called civilised modern industrialised world are attention starved, are inept at getting the attention they need, and probably think ‘getting attention’ is bad, having confused it with attention-seeking disorders, disruptive children, and the harsh words of teachers, parents and friends about ‘showing off’.

The first message, then, of Shah’s work on attention is: we all need it, so why not become more efficient at getting it. Attention is good! Get it and give it to others. Shah says, “Above all we have to give one another more attention.”

The second message is: you can keep going on far less attention than you might imagine. If you know you are going to have a good meal at the end of the day, you can resist snacking along the way. For too many of us, snacking on unsubstantial random bites of attention is all we get of this valuable nutrition.

The next observation, having satisfied your attention needs, is to realise that the attention factor is at work in every human interaction. Even making eye contact provides an attention hit, as Dr Eric Wesselmann of Purdue University reported. He found, not surprisingly perhaps, that ‘Looking through’ people gives less feeling of social connection than making eye contact[5].

Because attention exchange is involved in almost every human interaction, it behoves us to be aware of this. Shah realised most of us weren’t. Whereas there is a tacit knowledge of attention in much of the ‘undeveloped’ East, such information had been over-looked or forgotten in the West. Along with story telling, ritual and other very human needs, it had been deemed ‘childish’. Shah’s attention theory redressed the balance. Shah wrote, “Here and there proverbs and other pieces of literary material indicate that there has been at one time a widespread knowledge of attention on the lines now being described. Deprived, however, of context, these indications survive as fossil indicators rather than being a useful guide to attention-exercise for contemporary man.[6]

In his book Learning How to Learn[7], Shah laid out with admirable succinctness the whole field of attention studies. Some of the ideas therein have been touched upon, but here are few more:

“Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.” This explains ‘conversion syndrome’: when an apparently rational person flips 180 degrees in their beliefs, it’s usually because the source of their attention has changed. And in order to sustain the new attention, their beliefs change as well.

“People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, since most people are frequently attention-deprived. This is one reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.”

“Observation shows that people’s desires for attention ebb and flow. When in an ebb or flow of attention-desire, the human being not realising that this is his condition, attributes his actions and feelings to other factors, e.g., the hostility or pleasantness of others. He may even say that it is a ‘lucky day’, when his attention-needs have been quickly and adequately met. Re-examination of such situations has shown that such experiences are best accounted for by the attention-theory.”

“Raising the emotional pitch is the most primitive method of increasing attention towards the instrument which increased the emotion. It is the prelude to, or accompaniment of, almost every form of indoctrination.”

We also see the effect of raised emotional pitch in cultures which are loud and expressive – attention needs are satisfied in this way rather than in organised social events. People often remark on the number of ‘support groups’ in the US and the number of hobby groups and organisations in the UK; both are organised ways of getting and giving attention in cultures where this may not happen easily in everyday life. Anyone who has experienced life in an ‘undeveloped’ country in the East will know that people give and get attention far more readily in ordinary encounters. A Syrian academic studying in Oxford remarked that ‘he felt like someone’ in Syria, but that in the UK he felt ‘invisible’. It was all down to the attention value of his daily encounters in each country.

Shah writes in Reflections[8]: “It is a basic error to imagine that only a human being can be involved in the attention-situation. Some of the most important attention-situations concern real or imagined sources of attention other than human ones.”

Pets, objects, even ideas can ‘give us attention’ if we use our imagination. Imagining one is special by virtue of nationality is one way an idea can bestow attention upon ourselves.

Shah’s attention-theory accounts for many seemingly unconnected events and experiences. We can see that games are a very valuable source of giving and getting attention: is it any surprise that the undemonstrative British (who so habitually use attention-denial as a form of control that they are often attention deprived themselves) are so keen on games and sports of all kinds?

We can also see that the demise of ritual attention exchanges – often confused with ‘being polite’ – results in attention-seeking in other ways.

Being a ‘supporter’ becomes a way of getting attention in a culture where ‘look at me’ is frowned upon. Though seeming to deflect attention elsewhere, the supporter is really using the thing supported – the team, pop star, book or movie – as a method of getting attention for themselves.

Idries Shah’s insight that attention-theory ignorance leads to most people being attention deprived takes a new turn with the rise of social media and online entertainment. We only have so much attention to give, so if we squander it on staring at a screen we won’t feel like extending much to other people. People denied attention won’t return it – and a whole downward spiral of chronic attention shortage occurs. A growing world phenomenon is that of children living most of their time in their bedrooms, even when almost fully grown. Their valuable attention-giving capacity has all been used up. Such people perceive the world fearfully instead of with curiosity – which is essentially a greater capacity to give attention.

2017 saw the publication of Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants, an account of how our need to give and receive attention has been successfully commoditised, packaged up and sold for a profit – something the internet has vastly accelerated. One glance at Facebook and you’ll find a hundred different pleas for your valuable attention. And of course there is that box-set to watch on TV later…

We only have so much attention to give. If we throw it away we cannot give it to the people we love, to people who really need it. And we are, as we’ve seen, cheating ourselves of getting back the attention we so need.

Idries Shah stated that until you have ruled out the attention factor in any explanation of human behaviour, assume that it is the motivating cause. On the face of it this sounds an astounding assertion: it is up to the reader to check it against their own experience.

[1] BBC 1970

[2] Aggressive Behaviour Mark Leary 2003

[3] Psychological Science. American Psychological Association April 2012 Vol 43 No. 4

[4] Guardian June 21 2014

[5] Psychological Science. American Psychological Association April 2012 Vol 43 No. 4

[6] Idries Shah. Learning how to Learn. Octagon books 1978. Reprinted 2017 ISF Publishing.

[7] ibid

[8] Idries Shah. Reflections. Octagon press 1968. Reprinted ISF publishing