Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

Share this blog

attention pleas: charities, the attention economy and ethical design

(NB: Just in case you were wondering, that "pleas" isn't a typo- it's supposed to be a pun. And we all know that the best jokes are the ones you have to explain...)

8 February 2018

"The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention."

Kevin Kelly, Wired magazine

Recent years have seen a marked increase in competition for our attention, both online and offline. As the range of options in all areas of our life continues to expand massively, companies vie ever more furiously with each other to ensure that they command the maximum share of our engagement; so that they can continue to sell us products and gain valuable information about our behaviour and preferences.

The rise of this “attention economy” has led to the development of an array of sophisticated techniques for grabbing and holding our attention. But there are growing concerns that some of these techniques may be doing long-term harm.

At a societal level, most of us are now aware of the issues around “filter bubbles” and the way that social media platforms can act as “echo chambers” in which we interact only with a select subset of people who share our values and beliefs, and thus find those values and beliefs being reinforced. Likewise, many of us will have seen stories about the way in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to enable micro-targeting of particular groups and communities; either for advertising purposes or in the context of elections to try to influence decisions. There are widespread concerns that trends like these are having a corrosive effect on our society, by undermining the space for public discourse and distorting democratic processes.

At an individual level, there are also concerns that the techniques used to make social media apps and platforms compelling are deliberately designed to harness powerful subconscious reward mechanisms, and as such can lead to addictive behaviour. A number of former executives and developers who were responsible for creating these techniques have subsequently come out and expressed their regret for having done so because they are concerned about the long-term negative impact the platforms they helped design are having on mental health and social interactions. Senior figures within the wider tech industry, such as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, have also publicly voiced concerns about the deliberately addictive nature of social media.

What does all this mean for charities? How can they navigate this new attention economy; ensuring that they do not lose out in the battle for our attention whilst also being careful that they do not become part of the problem by adopting techniques that cause longer-term harm? Here are a few thoughts about the challenges and the positive role that charities could play.

1 Addressing the health and social impacts of attention economy techniques

At an individual level, many have pointed out that the user experience (UX) of social media platforms often relies on creating “pseudo-rewards” in the form of likes, retweets and so on, that can stimulate the release of small amounts of dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter in our brain that has been shown to be associated with other addictive things such as money, chococlate, cocaine, sex and gambling (sounds like a good evening, eh…?)

As we have already touched on, some of the techniques that have been developed to make organisations competitive in the attention economy have wider negative impacts. At a societal level, there are concerns that by exacerbating the tendency for people to exist in filter bubbles through algorithmically-tailored news feeds and content promotion, social media platforms are eroding the public sphere and leading to deeper division in our society.
At both a macro and an individual level, charities will almost certainly have to play a part in dealing with the consequences of these negative impacts. Charities with a mission to build community cohesion, for instance, will need to work out how they factor into their work the effect that social media might be having on creating division between different communities in a local area. Likewise, charities that deal with mental health will need to tailor their approach and understanding to ensure that they can deal with the new problems being caused by addiction to social media and the impact it might have on real-world social interactions.

2 Complex messaging in a short attention-span market

In addition to charities having to address the negative consequences of the battle for attention directly, there are also likely to be wider, indirect consequences that will affect many organisations.

Many charities, for instance, need to get across fairly nuanced and sophisticated messages about their work and the causes they are trying to address. This task will be much harder in a context where it is difficult to get more than a fleeting instant of anyone’s attention. The likelihood is that messaging in other areas will continue to become more simplified and black-and-white, so that it can be conveyed in the shortest possible amount of time. But should charities follow suit? While there is always a strong argument for clarity and brevity, what if the topic simply doesn’t lend itself to being put across in a pithy 30 second video, a tweet or an Instagram filter?

A further challenge for many charities is that they often rely on using data and evidence to make the case for their campaigning or policy asks. But another consequence of the degradation of public discourse has been the devaluation of facts and expertise (because we have all, apparently, “had enough of experts” © Michael Gove). It will be significantly harder for charities to influence public or political opinion if those who do not already agree with them are able to dismiss their arguments as “fake news” or their research as “alternative facts”.


We have seen that one big challenge for charities will be finding ways to compete in the marketplace for attention without diluting or distorting their message. The obvious place to look for inspiration is to those commercial players that have already proven highly successful at winning and retaining attention, but this will bring significant risks of its own.

Given that we are now aware that many of the techniques developed by these companies have detrimental effects and may promote undesirable long-term behaviours; can charities find ways of learning from them and harnessing them without running the risk of further contributing to the problems they cause? Or should they just stay well away and accept that this might mean they lose out in the short term?

This is obviously going to be a very difficult decision for many charities. The temptation for organisations facing an increasingly challenging environment for fundraising may well be to prioritise the short-term need to raise money; but if this comes at the expense of longer-term relationships with donors and supporters; or public trust in charities or fundraising more broadly, that may prove to be a mistake. We have already seen this happen with things like telephone and face-to-face fundraising: whilst these methods were widely adopted because they demonstrably worked in terms of bringing in donations, over time bad practices crept in (particularly when the responsibility for fundraising was outsourced to commercial third parties), and public and political attitudes towards them became more negative. This culminated in a wave of newspaper stories about fundraising malpractice in the UK in 2015. As a result, fundraising charities and their representative bodies have been doing a lot of work to try to stamp out bad practice and make regulation of their industry more effective.

When it comes to the attention economy, we should heed the lessons of these examples and ensure that all charities take a fully responsible and ethical approach to user design, to ensure that they are not causing harm and contributing to wider negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

4 Undermining donor motivation: dopamine, pseudo-reward and warm glow

Another question we should ask is whether the very things that make many social media apps so addictive could actually undermine their usefulness - or even make them actively counterproductive - in a fundraising context. What do I mean by this, you might ask?  Well, we have already seen that the addictive nature of these user interfaces is often due to the fact that they create pseudo-reward mechanisms (likes, re-tweets etc) designed to stimulate the release of small amounts of dopamine. But dopamine is also important when it comes to charitable giving.

One of the most widely accepted economic theories to explain charitable behaviour relies on the notion of a “warm glow” i.e. an intangible increase in personal wellbeing or satisfaction tht a donor gets in return for their gift. And this theoretical mechanism has been confirmed by evidence from neuroscience; as it has been shown using fMRI scans that charitable giving stimulates the release of dopamine as a reward mechanism in much the same way as other types of pleasurable activity.

Does this mean, however, that the dopamine stimulation from the user interface pseudo-rewards and that arising from the warm-glow effect of giving could cut across one another; or even cancel each other out entirely? So if people were using a charity interface modelled on commerical socia media, and were getting dopamine stimulation (and thus a feeling of reward) simply by virute of the equivalent of likes or retweets, would this mean that their subsequent motivation for actually donating any money would be reduced? This is is similar to the sorts of questions people are asking about whether “clicktivism” undermines traditional social action and charitable giving.

I don’t have the answer to these questions (not being a professional neuroscientist or economist and all…), but I definitely think we need to think a lot more about these kinds of issues before any of us rush headlong into adopting techniques simply because they have proved successful in commercial contexts.

In a future where, we are now told, “data is the new oil”, it seems as though attention could also be a new form of currency. Companies and other organisations are already spending a lot of time trying to think up new ways to capture and hold our attention online. It is likely that this battle will intensify as the use of conversational AI-driven interfaces continues to grow, and as we expand into new partially or fully immersive AR and VR interfaces, because in these contexts the ability to exert a monopoly over our attention could be far greater and thus the prize on offer much larger.

For charities and civil society organsiations this already presents a number of challenges, which are likely to become more acute in coming years. Not only do they need to grapple with the question of how they can compete in the marketplace for attention against large, highly-resourced commercial organisations, but they also need to bear in mind the dangers of using techniques that might have a detrimental longer-term effect on mental health and social interactions, or using approaches which might prove counter-productive in a philanthropic context.  It seems vital, therefore, that charities take an ethical approach to designing user interfaces and interactions that take these kinds of considerations into account.


The think tank for doing good

Giving Thought

Understanding and reimagining civil society.

Contact Giving Thought