Relationships: Attending to Different Worlds

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Much research shows that simply paying attention to someone else, which is the essence of bonding, is highly beneficial for both parties. Having social ties is the single best predictor of a longer healthier, more satisfying life.

The author writes, “At the very least, paying attention to someone else confers the big psychological benefits of structuring your experience and distracting you from the self-referential rumination that so often takes a negative cast.” Research by psychologist Joanne Wood indicates that if you want to feel better about who you are, you should concentrate on someone of lower status. But if you’re trying to motivate yourself, you should focus on a person who outranks you. A message we don’t often hear from the therapy and psychopharmacological industries is that paying attention to the other guy often helps us more than the other guy.

MacArthur ‘genius award” winner and director of UCLA’s Center On Everyday Life of Families, Elinor Ochs has researched how children are socialized and learn languages in parts of the developing world as well as in white middle-class America. She defines attention as “a focus on a point of orientation that can be at once perceptual, conceptual, and social,” and identifies two broad cultural variations in the way it affects family relationships.

In it-takes-a-village societies such as Somoa, from very early life people are encouraged to direct their attention outward to others. Children are cared for by friends and relatives as well as parents and are actively taught to notice other people and their needs. When they are carried, babies are held outward on the hips or perched so they can peep over the caregiver’s shoulder. Even before they can talk, these tots are primed to attend to what others are doing and feeling. Ochs says, “In their culture, the priority is to be relational and person-oriented.”

In contrast to this outward, other-directed focus that prevails in much of the world, people in the highly individualistic West are encouraged early on to concentrate on their own needs and desires. Instead of mostly being carried, babies are held at arm’s length in strollers, high chairs, car seats, or other devices; they sleep in their own cribs and even rooms, which would be unthinkable elsewhere. As if to reinforce their highly personalized experience, Western children are encouraged to pay lots of attention to objects. Ochs says, Even little babies have toys, and they’re taught to pay attention to their shapes and colors.” (Despite the claims made of products marketed to hopeful parents, one study showed that rather than creating infant geniuses, focusing babies aged eight to sixteen months on “educational” videos, actually impedes their verbal development; each hour of viewing per day actually impedes their verbal development; each hour of viewing per day correlated with a child’s knowing six to eight fewer words than unwired peers).

By the age of four Samoan children contribute to society helping to care for younger siblings and carrying messages for adults. That tots should work for the commonweal sounds like abuse to most Westerners, who assume that young children either can’t or shouldn’t have to respond to others’ needs.

This same UCLA research team finds that, even when they get together, families often undermine the desired feeling of fellowship by focusing on the wrong things. Mothers tend to pick the subject—“Tell Dad what happened at school”—and fathers provide the judgment: “That’s a very good grade” or “You should have practiced harder.” Fathers almost never focus on their own daily experience, however, and when they do, their narrative style doesn’t encourage feedback. In contrast to the moms’ and kids’ open-ended participatory approach—“How should I deal with this situation?” the men go for “Hers’s how I’m handling it.”

Bradbury, the director of the UCLA family project’s “marriage lab,” is concerned about the implications for adults’ well-being, because “marriage seems like the last bastion of relationships in which people are still committed to attending to one another.” Bradbury continues, “A profound focus on your partner is, was, and always will be the distinguishing characteristic of an intimate bond such as marriage. Nevertheless, I’m continually impressed by the inconsistency of sustained attention in relationships. Partners complain about this all the time, and kids probably would to, if they could. We’ve evolved with the capacity to attend to each other but it’s not exactly dominant in our lives. Imagine a world where it was!”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: