Captivology: The Science of Capturing People's Attention

February 25, 2015


Captivology, from the cofounder of venture capital firm DominateFund and former editor of Mashable, teaches us how to get and maintain attention.

In an increasingly noisy, fast-paced, and attention starved marketplace, it is crucial to find a way to cut through conversational clutter and grab people's attention. But there are different kinds of attention, and getting someone to see your fruit stand at a busy farmers market or pay closer attention to your 30-second spot during rush hour doesn't necessarily translate into sustained recognition or repeat customers. So, how do you go about not only capturing attention, but maintaining it?

Ben Parr's Captivology, due out next week from HarperOne, teaches you how to do both. Parr is an award-winning tech journalist, and an entrepreneur and investor, to boot. So he's got the real-world experience and the bird's eye view, and combined both with the latest scientific research to frame out this book, and then populated it with stories and interviews with the like of Sheryl Sandberg and Steven Soderbergh to give you a practical approach to capturing attention. But, even though he has access to some famous people, Parr is quick to point out:

Captivology isn't about how to be loud, seek fame or fortune, or become the center of attention. Nor is this a book about how to keep focused in a world full of distractions or about the rise of ADHD. And this isn't a book on quick-and-easy marketing techniques ... Captivology is an exploration of how attention works, focused on the triggers that can attract attetnoin and whatever audience you are targeting, in any industry or situation.
Parr describe three stages of attention, and explores them a little more in this excerpt from Chapter 1.

The Three Stages of Attention

Stanford's Jon Krosnick, a political science professor and the director of Stanford's Political Psychology Research Group, has studied hundreds of election results in Ohio and California. In almost every single race he and his colleagues studied—from local alderman elections to the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections—if a candidate's name was listed first on the ballot, it increased the amount of votes that candidate received by an average of 2 percent, sometimes more. Two points may not seem like much, but with a two-point swing, we would likely be talking about how President Mitt Romney would have handled Edward Snowden.

Krosnick's research doesn't show voters are lazy. Instead, it demonstrates just how limited our attention truly is. When we are juggling a job, a family, social and community activities, work e-mails and meetings, we might have enough attention left to learn about presidential or parliamentary candidates but probably not enough time or concern to learn about the candidates for, say, a school board election. With limited information, the human brain automatically looks for shortcuts to help it make decisions.

Being first has a positive association in our culture—first place, first in line, and so on. Thus, we unconsciously ascribe the positive quality of being first to the first name listed on the ballot, even though the candidate's placement on the ballot has nothing to do with his or her qualifications for office.

These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics. They are the quick general rules that guide our attention, consciously and unconsciously, both in the immediate moment and over the course of years or even decades. How do I find Waldo? Search for red-and-white stripes and ignore everything else. Which movie should I watch? Rely on the reviews from Rotten Tomatoes. We only have so much attention to give, and so we look for shortcuts to help us allocate that attention.

Not all attention is created equal, though. Some attention, like the kind you pay when somebody is shouting at a party, is fleeting. Think about what happens once the person shouting at the party stops: everybody simply directs their attention back to their previous conversations. People will turn their heads toward a disturbance, but their focus will fizzle out once the disturbance is gone. We shift our attention from one thing to the next.

For the purposes of this book, there are three types of attention—immediate, short, and long—and the shortcuts we use for each type of attention are different. For example, when we hear a person shout, we quickly (and often subconsciously) determine whether the person is just throwing a temper tantrum or having a medical emergency.

If we determine it's the former, our attention quickly shifts away, but if it's the latter, our attention will ratchet to the next level as we focus and decide what to do next to help. How does our brain help us manage our limited attention? And what role do the three types of attention play in our lives?


Unlike short attention, familiarity is the key to long attention. We build shortcuts for the activities and ideas we're familiar with. In some cases, these familiar occurrences and daily routines become instinctive habits. You don't have to think in order to brush your teeth or take a shower, but you know you need to do both, and you know how to do them almost automatically. We know which of our friends are fans of soccer or football from years of experience, so we know who to call when the World Cup or the Bears-Packers game is on.

The secret to creating a successful lesson plan, advertising campaign, or long-term relationship is finding effective ways to capture short attention and then transitioning into long attention. As the masters of attention I interviewed for this book will attest, it's not enough to have an audience watch an entertaining ad—it has to generate followers, fans, and most importantly, sales. You can't make a bonfire with just kindling—you need plenty of logs and patience too.

To better understand the three types of attention and how the masters use them to capture attention for their causes, it's worth looking at how one particular company successfully leveraged them to build a bonfire of attention for its popular product: Super Mario.

The Immediate, Short, and Long of Mario

Shigeru Miyamoto is a slender, sixty-two-year-old Japanese man with a childlike smile and a head full of black hair that parts on his forehead. He may not seem like it on first glance, but this quiet and unassuming man is one of the world's most successful masters of attention. Among gamers, he is known as one of the fathers of modern video gaming.

In the late 1970s, Miyamoto joined Nintendo as an artist, back when it was still moving away from its origins as a playing card company and toward its future in video games. He helped build one of the company's first games, Radar Scope, which was successful in Japan but not in the United States. He then moved on to create the two characters that would change his career: Donkey Kong and Mario.

I wanted to uncover why Mario, a chubby plumber with a thick mustache and an endearing Italian accent, had become one of the most recognized and popular characters in all of fiction, so I went directly to the source. When I first met Shigeru Miyamoto in a white room in Los Angeles, he wore a simple pair of black jeans, black shoes, a T-shirt with the characters from Nintendo's Pikmin series—which Miyamoto created—and a gray-patterned jacket with the Pikmin logo. It was lunchtime at Electronic Entertainment Expo—more commonly known as E3, the largest and most prominent of the gaming industry conventions—so he had brought a rice roll with him to eat, while his translator had a far more American meal: chicken wings and pulled pork.

The first stage of attention—immediate attention—is all about reaction, recognition, and standing out. So I asked Miyamoto what made Mario so recognizable and distinctive. In other words, why does he stand out? Mario's unique features, I learned, weren't simply by chance.

"The origin of Mario came from the limitations of the hardware at the time," Miyamoto told me through his translator. "We only had sixteen dots by sixteen dots to draw Mario."

The first Mario needed to look human and attract attention with just 256 total pixels. So Miyamoto and his team added a few features that would make his human features stand out. The first was a big nose, "to give him a distinctive flair," and a mustache to define that nose. Next was his head. Creating unique hair was almost impossible with 256 pixels of space, so the Nintendo team gave him a red cap. And finally, to make him stand out even further, Mario received red overalls instead of a shirt. Mario would trade his red overalls for a blue pair after Super Mario Bros.

The unique look has stuck. His big nose, red cap, and blue overalls are iconic and instantly recognizable. But having a distinctive character is only the beginning. Miyamoto also traces the plumber's success to the new styles of gameplay that each generation of Mario game promotes.

"He is representative of what is the latest and greatest of every generation of hardware," Miyamoto said. As you might recall, short attention relies on focus and novelty. A game that cannot keep a player's focus isn't a game worth playing. Typical Mario games have the player focus on achieving an immediate task—reach the flag pole, defeat one of Bowser's minions, etc.—and immediately rewards the player for each achievement. One hundred gold coins mean a new life, and seventy stars will let you fight Bowser in Super Mario 64. The dopamine flows almost immediately.

The best game designers are masters of short attention. They find ways to motivate players to reach an achievable goal and then go to the next one. It only takes a few minutes to get through a single stage in Mario. Imagine how many people would quit if it took an hour or even a day to complete a level.

Gameplay alone doesn't make a player loyal to the Mario franchise, though. The final stage of attention, long attention, relies on interest and a certain level of familiarity.

"The other element of Mario that helped make him more popular was the fact that we didn't want to make him into a superhero," Miyamoto explained to me during our conversation. "He was more an everyman. You can see that in his character design—he's just some guy, you can't tell how old he is. That appealed more to people."

In his book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, author Jeff Ryan points out that Mario is a "one-size-fits-all hero." He's simple and relatable. He's often mute in his game, allowing us to envision Mario as "our eternal alter ego."

Mario games are also familiar, despite the new gameplay mechanics that appear in each game. His mission is often the same: save the princess from the evil Bowser. Mario's powers—his jumping ability, his fire flowers, and his mushrooms—are constants. So are the goombas, gold coins, stars, and koopas. Just enough things are different from game to game to capture short attention while certain elements are familiar enough to retain long attention over the course of years. Different games, same hero.

I came across this pattern time and time again during my years of research for this book. Mario's eye-popping features capture immediate attention; novel and enjoyable gameplay and attainable rewards stimulate working memory and capture short attention; likable characters and familiar figures keep Mario in our long-term memory and thus capture long attention. Miyamoto patiently built his bonfire over decades until it could be seen on the other side of the world.

Harnessing the Three Types of Attention

When you're trying to capture the attention of others—whether it's a classroom full of students or dispersed readers of your blog—you must remember that they can only pay attention to a small number of people and ideas. With thousands of distractions and priorities competing for your audience's attention, it's easy to see why their focus can be so fleeting.

To build a bonfire of attention for your message, you have to capture your audience's immediate, short, and long attention. First, you need to elicit a reaction by being distinctive or disruptive. Once you have your audience's immediate attention, you need something unique, novel, and useful to keep their working memory focused on your message. Having secured their short attention, you must create value for your audience to capture their long-term attention.

The captivation triggers I describe in [Captivology] are ideal tools to use to capture these three types of attention. The triggers—Automaticity, Framing, Disruption, Reward, Reputation, Mystery, and Acknowledgment—will help you build a bonfire of attention by progressing from capturing your audience's immediate attention to mesmerizing their short attention and finally to captivating their long attention.

Keep the three types of attention—and the three stages for building a bonfire of attention—in mind as you read the rest of this book. Doing so will help you better understand not only how to capture the attention of others but also how your own attention works.

Excerpted from Captivology: The Science of Capturing People's Attention by Ben Parr.
Reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.
Copyright 2015 by Ben Parr. All rights reserved.


Ben Parr is an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, investor, and expert on attention. He is the cofounder and managing partner of DominateFund, a venture capital firm; was coeditor and editor-at-large of Mashable; and served as columnist for CNET. Parr was named one of the top ten tech journalists in the world by Say Media and named to the Forbes "30 Under 30." He lives in San Francisco.

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