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Commanders of Attention 1: The Attractors

Certain cues seize our attention vigorously. Those that do so most powerfully are linked to our survival. Sexual and violent stimuli are prime examples


Consider a small study done in France. The researchers arranged for an attractive nineteen-year-old woman to approach two random samples of middle-aged men walking alone and ask them for a hazardous type of help.

Indeed, in one sample, only 20 percent of the men took up the young woman’s cause. But in the other sample, almost twice as many launched themselves into the dispute just as requested.

What accounted for the difference? All the men had been approached a few minutes before by a different young woman who asked for street directions, but some had been asked for the whereabouts of Martin Street; the others, for Valentine Street.

Although the results are striking regarding the ease with which sexual stimuli provoked middle-aged male foolishness, the same results point to an instructive complication. The attractiveness of the young woman requesting assistance with her phone was not enough, by itself, to accomplish it. Something crucial to the process had to be put into place first. The men had to be exposed to a sexually linked concept, Valentine’s Day, before she could prompt them to act. An opener was needed that rendered them receptive to her plea prior to ever encountering it. In short, an act of pre-suasion was required.

Although responses to sexual content can be strong, they are not unconditional. Using sex to sell a product works only for items that people frequently buy for sexually related purposes. Cosmetics (lipstick, hair color), body scents (perfume, cologne), and form-fitting clothing (jeans, swimwear) fall into this category.

There’s a wider lesson here, as well, that goes beyond the domain of advertising. In any situation, people are dramatically more likely to pay attention to and be influenced by stimuli that fit the goal they have for that situation. Just within the realm of sexual stimuli, studies have found that straight, sexually aroused males and females spent more time gazing at photos of members of the opposite sex who were especially attractive. This inclination seems natural and hardly newsworthy. The surprise was that the tendency appeared only if the gazers were in the market for a romantic/sexual relationship. Individuals who weren’t looking for a new partner didn’t spend any more time locked on to the photos of good-looking possibilities than average-looking ones.

There is a strong connection, then, between a person’s current romantic/sexual goals and that person’s tendency to pay concentrated attention to even highly attractive others.

Remarkably, the best indicator of a breakup was not how much love they felt for their partner two months earlier or how satisfied they were with their relationship at that time or even how long they had wanted it to last. It was how much they were regularly aware of and attentive to the hotties around them back then.

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