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Philosopher to receive 2 million Euro to study attention

That which can influence our attention can hold great power. Now Sebastian Watzl gets funding from the European Research Council to study how and why this happens.

Portrait of Sebastian Watzl

Associate Professor Sebastian Watzl and the GOODATTENTION project aim to develop better theories for how we think about attention. (Photo: UiO)

Much public discussion about social media, public health, and political debates focuses on what deserves our attention, and how we should regulate our attention in the face of distraction.

Sebastian Watzl, philosopher of science at the University of Oslo, is awarded a grant of 2 million Euro from the EU to study these issues, through the project GOODATTENTION.

He will look into normative questions about attention: what are appropriate, correct or rational patterns of attention. This is then connected to how attention actually works: both in an individual and in groups and societies.

“It is my great pleasure to congratulate Sebastian Watzl with this ERC Consolidator Grant! GOODATTENTION puts a spotlight on important issues in our time. This interdisciplinary project is a brilliant example of how the Humanities help provide answers to highly relevant problems,” says Dean of Research at The Faculty of Humanities, Mathilde Skoie.

Distracting attention threatens social trust

“Cultivating good patterns of attention is important to us all. Attention framing and misdirection are pervasive threats to social trust, and a common basis for knowledge,” Watzl says.

He wants to make use of social and cognitive psychology, game theory, philosophy of mind and action, as well as social epistemology and political philosophy to investigate attention norms.

“The research is grounded in a well-founded understanding of attention both in philosophy and in psychology and neuroscience. Now I’m connecting this with totally different fields of philosophy: ethics, the theory of knowledge, and the theory of what makes us rational. I’m connecting theoretical and practical issues in philosophy, and philosophy with other disciplines from psychology to economics,” Watzl explains.

“I think that was well received by the ERC panel.”

Is there fair distribution of attention?

«Spin doctors», troll factories or certain political actors all aim to distract or misdirect our attention.

“Many think that this is bad. But why exactly is that? Think of the advertisement industry and social media - are there philosophical grounds to impose restrictions on them?” Watzl asks.

He also points to current debates about who is honoured in monuments, paintings and history books.

“Our social and physical environments are created for certain patterns of attention. The statues of kings at the city squares are designed to be looked at. But what about those who cleaned the kings’ castles, or the women who were never mentioned in the history books?”

Is justice about a fair distribution of attention, and not only distribution of resources? 

In order to answer questions like these, Watzl believes we need a theory of where norms for attention come from, how to systematically think about them, and one that can challenge our ordinary normative thinking about attention.

“This project connects so many academically interesting areas, and at the same time I hope it can also be something that other people find interesting too, and that society has some use for. It also allows me to be in dialogue with people from all these areas,” Watzl says.

Sebastian Watzl is Associate Professor of philosphy at the Department of Philosphy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, and leads the research and teaching initiative Centre for Philosophy and the Sciences.

Read about other research projects funded by the ERC

By Ellen Evju Jahr
Published Dec. 9, 2020 12:19 PM - Last modified Dec. 9, 2020 12:47 PM