Only about 1 in 4 Americans said they had confidence in national institutions in 2023 — with major corporations (1 in 7), television news (1 in 7) and Congress (1 in 12) ranking at the bottom .
As institutional trust declines, political polarization increases. Majorities of Republicans (72%) and Democrats (64%) view each other as more immoral than other Americans – an increase of nearly 30% between 2016 and 2022. Compared to comparable democracies, the United States has seen the largest increase in animus towards the political opponent over the past forty years.
What remains when public trust and political consensus disappear? This question has occupied me in my research for the past twenty years, both as a scientist trained in social anthropology, organizational sciences and social cognition and as a professor of psychology.
Researchers don’t have all the answers, but it seems that even without public trust and agreement, people can share experiences. Whether it’s watching a spelling bee or a football match, ‘we’ still exist if ‘we’ can witness it together.
My colleagues and I call this human ability to see from a collective perspective the theory of the collective mind. The basis of the collective mind, and what we study in the laboratory, is shared attention, instances in which people experience the world together with others.
Shared attention enhances experiences
Laboratory experiments with adults show that shared experiences enhance psychological and behavioral responses to the world.
My colleagues and I find that synchronous attention with others produces stronger memories, deeper emotions, and stronger motivations, compared to looking at the world alone or at different times. Studies show that seeing words together makes them more memorable, watching sad movies together makes them sadder, and focusing on shared goals together increases efforts to pursue them. Sharing attention to the behavior of others results in more imitation of that behavior.
Crucially, those experiencing something with you do not need to be physically present. While in some experiments participants sit next to each other, in other studies participants believe they are attending together from different lab rooms or even across the country. Regardless of location, the feeling that we are ‘attending’ something at the same time – compared to in solitude or on your own schedule – enhances the experience.
Labs in the United States, Australia, Hungary, Germany and Denmark have found similar results. In particular, some research has found that people want more shared experiences, even if they don’t actually enjoy them any more than solitary experiences.
What’s behind these observations? As a social species that survives through collective action, humans in general need a common ground from which to act. When shared experiences reinforce what we know together, it can guide subsequent behavior, making that behavior more understandable and useful to the collective.
By sharing attention you build relationships
Shared attention takes place within the boundaries of our cherished relationships and groups, such as when friends go to the movies together, but also beyond.
Research shows that shared attention to a common subjective experience can build relationships across political divides and strengthen cooperation between strangers. For example, when people co-testify that they have the same gut reaction to an unfamiliar piece of music or a meaningless inkblot, they like each other more, even though they have opposing political preferences. Crucially, relational benefits are more likely when such subjective experiences are shared simultaneously – instances when people are most likely to feel a shared spirit.
People can be next to each other or thousands of miles apart, in groups of two or two hundred, and the results are the same: shared attention amplifies experiences, creates social bonds, and even synchronizes individuals’ heartbeats and breathing.
Scientists studying children find that interest in attending to others begins in the first year of human life, predating the development of language and several years before any idea of shared beliefs. Human relationships do not start with sharing values; Sharing attention is paramount.
The role of shared attention in society
Before the advent of the Internet, Americans shared attention widely: They watched the same nightly news together, even if they didn’t always agree on whether it was good or bad. With people’s attention divided into media silos, there are more barriers than ever to sharing attention with those you disagree with.
And yet, even when we can no longer agree on what “we” believe, sharing attention to the fundamental sights and sounds of our world unites us. These moments can be relatively small, like watching a movie in the theater, or big, like watching the Super Bowl. However, it is important to remember that we share such experiences with Americans of all political persuasions.
Consider the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, a policy designed to give balanced attention to controversial issues of public interest, exposing the public to a variety of viewpoints. In effect, it created episodes of shared attention across social, political, and economic divides.
Institutional trust is now almost twice as low as in 1987, the year the fairness doctrine was abolished. It is possible that the end of the fairness doctrine contributed to the creation of a hyper-polarized media, in which the norm is to share attention with those who are ideologically similar.
Of course, sharing attention on divisive issues can be painful. Yet I think it can also push us beyond our national rift and toward reviving public trust.
Why? When we share our awareness of the world with others, no matter how different our beliefs, we form a community of minds. We are no longer alone. If we want to restore public trust and national ideals, sharing attention across societal divisions seems like a way forward.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.