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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Psychology: What short attention spans cost us

Columnist John Hawkin makes an important point here in my view (in a summary of what he thinks is wrong in the United States today):
2) Short Attention Spans: Perhaps because of the internet, the stunning variety of news sources, or the complexity of modern society, we've become much less able as a people to follow logical arguments and deal with complex messages.

This has bled over into Congress where they write legislation dealing with issues they don't truly understand. That legislation is voted on by legislators who admit that they haven't read it and it affects the lives of millions of people who were unaware that such legislation was even being contemplated.

The problem with this is that there are many issues in life that are too knotty to be broken down into a soundbite or a 30 second commercial. Those affairs require more extensive knowledge and deeper thought and consideration than can be placed on a bumper sticker or weaved into a music video. When we lose sight of that fact, utter disasters that have been in plain sight all along for anyone with an attention span longer than five minutes can blindside much of the population.
Yes, and short attention spans can also lead people to fail to see long term benefits from comparatively simple programs.

I have long been an advocate of school breakfast and lunch programs. For children, good nutrition is an important support for learning. Provision of food, as such, is not a problem in a technologically advanced democracy. Quite the contrary, farmers destroy tonnes of perfectly good food every year that they just cannot sell at market rates.

Pregnant cows and sows go to slaughter, when their offspring could be raised - and consumed by people who need the nutrition.

Also, breakfast and lunch programs provide respectable work in the community for cooks, servers, and cleanup crew - they do not need any special training apart from instruction in using the equipment, sanitation procedures, and common sense dealings with clients.

But what happens? A big uproar starts around who is "qualified" to enter the program. How about "whoever is enrolled in the school who wants to show up for breakfast"? The bureaucracy around entitlement then costs way more than just providing the breakfast.

(A parent or guardian should, of course, be required to sign a waiver in advance regarding allergies, when the child enrols for school that year.)

But so what if someone's Filipina nanny is also eating a breakfast (because her stingy mistress only gives her a piece of toast in the morning)? I think that, in that case, the program is more of a solution than a problem, at least for now.

Short attention spans mean that people fail to see the big picture and the long term. We are not short of food in North America, but we are plagued by rampant bureaucracy, and we must get free of it in order to help people do and be their best.

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