CPT-94803 Selective Attention and Ethics (Philosophy from a Humanistic Perspective)


Credits 3.00

Course coordinator(s)prof. dr. CN van der Weele
Lecturer(s)prof. dr. CN van der Weele
Examiner(s)prof. dr. CN van der Weele

Language of instruction:



We live among an overload of information. How to deal with that is a challenge, since our attention is limited and therefore inevitably selective. As attention has increasingly become a scarce resource, we begin to see how valuable it is - after all, our selection defines our experience. Yet we are often hardly aware of how we spend our attention and what are the forces that steer us. In this course, we look at attention-guiding forces, and at ways to make progress in becoming more masterful in what we might call 'the art of attention'. For that purpose, we will focus on the roles of the environment, the role of dominant attention patterns and the role of our emotions.

Environments are full of attention-guiding mechanisms - just think of the news, advertisements, social media. In order to understand their force, we also need to understand dominant and ingrained patterns in moving through our attentional landscapes, such as responding primarily to what is new and surprising. New things do not exhaust what is going on, so if we hope to build a balanced understanding of the world, a strong focus on what is new is a distorting force. Emotions are another complicating factor: some things are very nice and emotionally rewarding to attend to, other things are not, and we often have a tendency to avoid information when we suspect it may lead to unwelcome insights. Only think of the suspicion that we may not be as good or bright or popular as we would hope to be.Turning away form unwelcome information, also called 'strategic ignorance', also tends to affect our openness to information that comes with unwelcome responsibilities, for example concerning climate - and it is a reason why more information is not always helpful for making us more responsible. Another emotional complication is that we are not only givers of attention, but also receivers, and that we all, to various extents, have a need to be seen and attented to. This may be one of the reasons that leaving facebook is so hard for many people. 

The course deals with various forces, mechanisms and practices of selective attention. What we do and don't attend to is not only of practical and scientific interest, it is also personally and ethically important.

Topics include:
- attention patterns, practices and challenges: how to live in a world of information overload; the attention economy; attention and the media; information landscapes; selective attention in science; specific practices of selective attention
- mechanisms of selective attention: limited capabilities; habits, framing, agenda setting; incentives; unwelcome information and ambivalence; denial and strategic ignorance, evolutionary and social mechanisms;

- the mechanisms and consequences of attention as a reciprocal phenomenon; how attention is pursued; how we can become addicted to it
- normative and constructive approaches: ideals and assumptions of attention; moral questions; the role of art, design and the imagination; practical investigation and attention exercises.

Learning outcomes:

After successfully following this course you will be able to:
- recognize and explain patterns, practices, challenges and mechanisms of selective attention.
- reflect on selective attention form moral points of view, and to imagine and devise ways to investigate attention in practice.

- think of experimental ways to change your patterns of attention


- lectures;

- exercises and assignments;

- literature study;

- presentation and discussion of cases, essay.


Self-experiment 30%

Essay-question 30%

Essay 40%


Texts on Blackboard.