The Problem Of Titles – Capturing Your Attention Because Attention Is The 21st Century Currency

So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going.

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This is an odd post because it quickly jumped the tracks and took off in a very different direction; not surprising, given that brains do that sort of thing when they are allowed to. The consequence is that this shorter post will be followed in a few days with the longer one that reflects the direction my brain took with it. The link to that post will appear in the comments once it becomes live.

At some point in the recent past I happened across an article titled “The Problem Of Mindfulness” that made my brain throw an error before taking over and getting me clicking on the link. The error it threw was analogous to a hissy fit that a 3 year old might throw when faced with a parent who is telling them to go to sleep or to eat their vegetables – they were being made to do something that they didn’t agree or want to do. It was the best attempt of a near half-century old brain to hone in on the fact that something about the real world was not aligned with the internal representation it held and that maybe the real world isn’t as real as everyone would like to belief. The declaration of “up with this I will not put” was made via an automatic hand and finger movement to cursor onto and left click the link.

The title of the article is powerful, which is the reason why it landed on me the way it did. It hooks the brain and triggers it to do things WITHOUT ever asking for permission. It is a form of manipulation, and while the ask the author is making is not a big one, on some level it is less than moral. My rational for making this declaration is that it is my brain and I therefore should have final say on what goes into it and what processes fire-up to deal with the world. I have a problem with anyone capturing any part of it without my permission or consent.

The title “The Problem Of Mindfulness” implies that there is a problem with mindfulness and unless you agree with the statement, the brain is going to handle the statement as though it is a question. This transforms the title into “what are the problems with mindfulness?” It is version of the logical fallacy known as begging the question – which occurs when an argument’s premise assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. This is sort of like what happens when the question “when did you stop beating your wife?” is asked – it implies that you used to beat your wife, before it is established that you are even married. It is leading because the human brain automatically assumes to be true all of the things that are requirements for the statement to be true. Once these assumptions are made, they become “facts” unless they are immediately engaged and proven to be false.

I do not think there is any malice in what the author has done because when I read the article it is clear that they believe that “mindfulness” is being used in ways that are problematic. However, this does nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the title is having an effect on the reader’s brains that is automatic and unconscious. It is, in a way, the antithesis of mindfulness, hence the reason for my visceral reaction. Having spent thousands of hours meditating, it has become very clear to me that life is lived on autopilot for most people most of the time. I am not making a claim that the same is not true for me. My practice has only given me slightly more than zero control over what my brain is doing from moment to moment, and this affords to me only the occasional glimpse into the transient experience of being alive.

Begging the question, along with all of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases, are things that we can get a better handle on through logical means vs. experiential ones. BUT once we learn what they are and put the time in to learning how to notice them, the way they feel will eventually begin to surface. Each one of them and each one of us, will have a unique experience so I cannot say what begging the question will feel like for you. For me, it feels like manipulation or like someone is trying to sell me something, so it makes me feel queasy. But it has a tint of anger that I can best attribute to my modal-intensity being directed towards proving something that I know is not provable. Again, this is what it is like for me, how other people react to it will be different. The truth is though, most people will only react by assuming the unsupported premise is true and moving forward with whatever that belief causes them to think or do.

In fairness to all those who approach the world with good intention, two key things need to be stated. The first is that lying, dishonestly, and manipulation are very new things to our evolutionary path. Our species has had very little experience with them, so the hardware and default software we are running is the product of a world in which truth and honesty were the primary ways of operating. Advanced language that communicates abstract ideas is a necessary requirement for lying and subtle mind control to be possible. Then, in order to actually act this way, the incentive to do so would need to be much larger than the disincentive to. These factors date this type of behavior to the last 10000 years which is not nearly long enough for the brain to have adjusted to combat it.

The second thing is that the best article in the world, or the best idea that has ever come to a human beings mind, is effectively worthless if no one reads it or it is never shared with anyone. A strong title is a simple way to get people to read the article or consume the idea. If the article is helpful and moves someone forward in their life, a case can be made for skipping the informed consent or free choice part of the equation and tricking someone into reading. I do not agree that the ends justify the means but some people might.

I have been told that my articles would get better traction is they were more controversial or if they were more inclined to cause outrage in some people. I agree, and I don’t care to journey down that road. It isn’t my goal to trigger either one of those things. My purpose is much closer to the opposite of them and could be summarized as trying to eliminate suffering by helping people create order in their lives. Whether or not this is a noble or worthwhile goal doesn’t factor into it. Nor does the desire to get hits or page views. While I would love all of these things to happen – to achieve a wide reach in terms of readership and impact, and to be considered a righteous person who played a role in the betterment of the lives of many people – if my ideas do not appeal to the many or do not stand on their own, that’s just how it goes. At the end of the day I have to live with myself and I have always found it difficult to sleep well when I have tricked someone into doing something that, while it may be in their best interest, was not something they would have willingly agreed to do.

So that’s the problem of titles, they are tool that is used to grab and hook your attention by exploiting a gap in the social software contained in the brain of each human being. When used this way, they bypass the need for informed consent or conscious choice, and lead you on to a page or into a place you didn’t have any plan on going. Those who lack the mindfulness to notice it happening, may not have the ability to then liberate their attention and redirect it back onto whatever matters the most or is most important to them.

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