Look at me: why attention-seeking is the defining need of our times

The urge to belong is universal. So would a better understanding of it help tackle loneliness – and explain why stalkers, spree killers and jihadists turn their pain on others?
Nishant Choksi selfie illustration


There is a famous Jewish mother joke. You’ve heard it before. Question: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: “Ah no, I’ll just sit in the dark. Don’t worry about me.” It’s funny, at least the first time, because people do behave like this. “Hey, over here!” they shout. “Ignore me! Ignore me!”

Everyone needs attention, like we need to eat. This is not controversial, nor is it hard to understand. But the idea must be slippery, because it will not stick. If we could keep in mind that people need attention, it would change the way we see almost everything they do, from art to crime, from romance to terrorism. And we must. Facebook alone harvests and sells the attention of 1.4 billion people every day. That’s about a fifth of the world. This alarms some people, and it is a big change. But we can’t know what to make of it until we understand what people need attention for.

Attention is other people thinking about you, and if there were ever humans who didn’t need it, they are now extinct. “Attention is one of the most valuable resources in existence for social animals,” says Dr Geoff MacDonald, a psychologist at the University of Toronto with an interest in human connection. “It was literally a matter of life and death. The people who didn’t feel good around others, or didn’t feel bad when they were separated from others, wouldn’t have the motivation to do the things that are required to pass their genes down the generations.”

Specifically, people have been shown to need a type of attention that psychologists call belonging. Abraham Maslow put belonging into his famous hierarchy of needs in 1943. In 1995, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary concluded in their paper The Need to Belong that the available research did indeed show that everyone has a “strong desire to form and maintain interpersonal attachments”. In particular, they identified that belonging means getting positive attention from people who know you well.

Nishant Choksi Illustration of rman under reading lamp
This isn’t hard to understand either. Someone who thinks well of you is more likely to cooperate with you. Or even mate with you, if you’re lucky. But their opinion only really counts if they’ve spent a lot of time with you, because that makes their idea of who you are more accurate, and only accurate approval is secure. “If you feel like you’re accepted for false reasons then that’s bound to create anxiety,” MacDonald says.

People who feel they don’t belong suffer terribly, and experience health problems comparable to smoking or obesity. They are the 18% of British adults who reported always (4%) or often (14%) feeling lonely, in a study published last year by the British Red Cross and Co-op. There are more lonely people in Britain than live in London. The problem is now obvious enough for the government to appoint a so-called “minister of loneliness”, Tracey Crouch.

The word loneliness is a good description of the feeling, but not its cause, which in reality has little to do with being alone. According to the report, just 22% of people who live alone feel lonely always or often, not much more than the 18% national average. Among 16-to-24-year-olds, on the other hand, the proportion is 32%. This shouldn’t be surprising. “Generally, loneliness seems to be a matter more of a lack of intimate connections than of a lack of social contact,” Baumeister and Leary wrote. Lonely people lack attention that is positive and accurate, in short.

So why don’t they ask for more? Because attention can be harvested only from the minds of other people, and high-quality attention won’t come by force. “In anthropological terms, it’s a gift economy,” says Dr Amy Pollard of the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), a charity that campaigns on loneliness. “You’re creating bonds of reciprocity, which is where the belonging comes from.” This means you only have as much high-quality attention as people want to give you. And asking for more – attention-seeking – is a signal that, in your case, they don’t want to give much. This isn’t fair. Nor is it reliable. (People can misjudge you.) But the idea that lonely people don’t deserve attention comes to us instinctively, as when we see an empty restaurant with a busy one next door.

Some lonely people themselves conclude that they aren’t worthy of attention, and withdraw from the world still further. Others search for a feeling of belonging, not always in the best way. Seek positive attention too openly and you get called “narcissist”. Seek attention from your family with great displays of wanting to be ignored, and they’ll put you in a Jewish mother joke. There are many ways of asking without asking, if we are prepared to notice. Why, for instance, is it taboo to suggest that people who self-harm, or have anorexia, might want attention? Is that not a source of pain worth taking seriously?

One way to seek attention is to do something that gets lots of it – art, politics, crime, journalism maybe – but that seems to have another purpose. The purpose matters. Otherwise you risk the special scorn reserved for people who are “famous for being famous”.

When Jamie Jewitt entered Love Island on ITV2 last July, he was depressed. A successful model based in New York, he had returned to Essex to live with his parents, then did nothing for years. His family all but forced him to join the show, aged 27, in the hope that it would shake him from his torpor.

In modelling, Jewitt explains over coffee, Instagram is non-negotiable. “You wouldn’t get work,” he says, “if you didn’t get a following.” In practice, this is quite easy for a model to do: just feed the public appetite for carefully posed and manipulated “snapshots”. Over time Jewitt gathered 13,000 followers. He enjoyed their compliments and exchanged messages with some. It was almost friendship. “You tell yourself you’re getting the real thing,” he says, “but it’s so hard to tell the difference.” He found he’d switch between bursts of activity and guilty silences. “I felt like a hypocrite, like a sellout. It was a big part of why I got unhappy. You feel isolated, but you don’t know why.

Illustration: Nishant Choksi

When arriving on Love Island, all contestants must surrender their phones. Inside, there are no TVs, no iPads, no contact at all with the outside. “You have to talk to people,” Jewitt says. “Get to know them, make friends.” What we never saw on Love Island were the hours upon hours of intense conversation. “On mine and Camilla [Thurlow]’s dates, all we’d talk about was books,” Jewitt recalls, “and none of that made it! People don’t want to hear that crap, do they?”

It’s funny that it took a reality show to make Jewitt live authentically again. “After two days I would wake up in the morning feeling so relieved,” he says. “It was unbelievable. A fresh start. The sad thing was I could have done it at any point on the outside.” Today he and Thurlow are still together, and the islanders remain close friends.

Now Jewitt has 801,000 Instagram followers, and mostly promotes good causes. These posts aren’t popular. “When I post about the things I care about, I lose close to a thousand followers,” he says. So far he has lost around 20,000 since his peak after Love Island, and has come to take a strange pleasure in the process. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says, “because I want the people who follow me to know who I am, and like who I am. I’m trying to depict a more real version of myself.”

Social media is bewitching because there’s time to lie, not like in real life. The opportunity for positive attention is enormous, but accuracy is the price. “When you present a curated version of yourself to the world, any approval that you get is not for your full and whole self,” MacDonald says. As Jewitt found out, this corrodes your feeling of belonging.

We don’t know yet whether social media makes people lonely. Even if it does, we should remember that it is also useful to keep real friendships going. But an MHF survey last month found that 30% of young Scots say social media makes them feel isolated. The 2015 Pisa schools report showed a dramatic fall across the developed world since 2012 in the number of children who would say that “I make friends easily at school”. By a small margin, those who use the internet the most were also most likely (17%) to say that they felt lonely – although we don’t know which was causing which, if either. We also don’t know how much of their time online was spent on social media.

Even if offline time is good for you, it can be stressful, which might make people hide behind their screens. “I always say to my students,” MacDonald says, “‘If only in real life we had a backspace button.’ But no. Once you say something, it’s out there. You don’t get that kind of control.” Until recently, in other words, most of us were simply too socially clumsy to avoid being ourselves.

For some people, usually those who had a hard time growing up, this stress can be unbearable. A fixed belief that you aren’t worth liking creates a loneliness and craving for attention that they struggle to satisfy. If desperate enough, they may even force other people to notice them, preferring to be hated than ignored. These people are unhappy, and can be dangerous…Sadly, some people feel not just ignored by their ex, but ostracised by the whole world. For them, life with almost no attention is sheer torture. A recent workplace study in Canada found that ostracism was worse than the negative attention of being bullied. The work of Professor Kip Williams at Purdue University in Indiana shows how ostracism causes pain, and can lead to antisocial behaviour. Another Mark Leary study shows it is a key factor in school shootings.  Like stalking, this is a crime that seems utterly irrational. Usually it suffices to say that the killer was angry, perhaps just insane. They are always lonely. Spree killers are fond of leaving documents that explain their feelings. Illustration: Nishant Choksi

There was a time when spree killing almost did not exist. Guns existed. So did bombs and knives and vans. So did violent and disturbed people. Indeed the world is now generally less violent than it used to be. Yet spree killings grow more frequent. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that mass shootings in the US in which at least four people died occurred, on average, once every 200 days between 1982 and 2011. Then once every 64 days between 2011 and 2014. Eighteen of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in the US since 1949 have occurred in the past 10 years, including all of the worst five.

What else can we call these but crimes of attention, made possible by new media? Filmed on camcorders, then on phones. Seen live around the world. Stored on Wikipedia and YouTube for posterity. Where would you have found a copy of a killer’s manifesto in 1990, let alone a video? The truth is that if you want the world’s attention badly enough, you can have it tomorrow. It is easy. Before the internet, it was not.

Jihadists love to leave speeches too, but theirs claim grander motives. Their killing sprees, they say, are part of a plan to reach paradise and bring about the triumph of their beliefs. Yet many of them hardly live with the piety they die for. Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London tube bombers, had a secret girlfriend. Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris, kept paedophile material on his computer. According to Demos interviews with 62 former jihadists in 2010, they “had a simpler, shallower conception of Islam than [nonviolent] radicals”. Does it seem likely that they were forced into violence by their devotion to scripture? Or is it more plausible that their violence, which obsesses the world, feeds a craving for attention that they clothe in phoney zealotry?

It is hard to imagine crimes of attention disappearing, but admitting that’s what they are should help. Perhaps then we’ll stop rewarding criminal behaviour with so much of the attention that it seeks. There are other simple solutions to our attention crisis. Ideas like the Big Lunch, or the MHF’s “Tea and Talk” events may improve access to high-quality attention by helping people get to know each other better. Eventually the moment may come when we are officially urged to get a minimum dose of offline conversation every week, like exercise or our five-a-day. When we talk more freely about our attention-seeking, maybe then at last we’ll get the attention we need.

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The Big Lunch is the UK’s annual get together for neighbours. Every year in June since the idea began in 2009, millions of people stop what they’re doing and get together with neighbours in a nationwide act of community and friendship.

Sign up to take part, and order your free Big Lunch pack, with everything you need to help you plan > 

A Big Lunch can be anything from a small gathering in a garden, park or driveway, to a larger party with trestle tables down the middle of your street. The official Big Lunch date isn’t practical for every community so you can run one at any time you fancy.

The idea is that by starting simple, all sorts of friendships, ideas and projects can come out of a Big Lunch. It gets people together and talking — and with a few inspired folk, it can lead to people doing more within their community, and tackling the issues that matter to them most.

Organising a Big Lunch shouldn’t be overly complicated, or require a lot of resources or money: it can be as big or as small as you like. By making use of what you already have and doing a little research to see what others can share, you’d be surprised at what you can all bring to the table! To get you going, here are our top tips to organising your Big Lunch:

Settle on a venue

Your Big Lunch can take place anywhere: in the road, back garden, park, allotment, school or community centre. Just make sure you get the relevant permissions. Here’s our handy guide to closing your road  — make sure you get in early!

Pick a date

The official Big Lunch day is our mass participation day each year, the first Sunday in June, but if that doesn’t work for you and your community, you can join in the fun on a different date.

Or why not hold a Lunar Lunch? If you or your neighbours are fasting during Ramadan, or working irregular shift patterns, the Lunar Lunch will bring people together after dark and you can feast your way into the night!

Find out who wants to come

Determine whether you want to keep it to residents in your street; people within a certain area like a postcode, or all users of a certain bus stop; or to a group linked by cause, such as a sports club or worship group.

Create some bright and friendly posters and leaflets and post them around your community. Make invites and add an RSVP or put a link up to an event page on Facebook Events or EventBrite so you get an idea of numbers, but don’t forget the art of conversation. Try to personally invite as many people as you can, and ask them to spread the word. By doing this you’ll likely find people who want to get involved with the organising too! Perhaps it’s face painting, sound equipment or baking a giant Big Lunch cake — you never know what hidden talents lie lurking, and many hands make light work!

In the run up to the day, new Big Lunchers can register for a free Big Lunch pack, which includes handy items like posters and invites.

Plan the food

Keep it simple. A bring-your-own picnic is a good option as it requires little preparation in advance, or you could ask everyone to bring one dish to share. That way you don’t necessarily need to have confirmation of how many people are coming, as there is usually plenty of food to go round. Take a look at some simple crowd-pleasing recipes that some regular Big Lunchers have kindly shared for you.


Make some decorations

Make bunting out of scraps of old material, plastic bags or the contents of your recycling box. Ask others to make bits and link them all together, or better yet, get together before your Big Lunch for a decoration making session. On the day, give the kids some chalk to decorate the pavement. A few extra streamers and flowers and you’re away. Take a look at a few of our simple ideas for decorations and if you’d like to customise your event, you can download our logos here.

Put on some music

A simple way to get some background music going is to get a few households to tune in to the same radio station and open the windows to get surround sound. See if anyone plays an instrument and fancies playing a few tunes — there’s nothing better than live entertainment. Worried about licencing? We’ve got you covered in our FAQs.

Get local support

Don’t be afraid to get out and about to see what people can offer for your Big Lunch. Local cafes, shops and businesses may be able to lend you things such as tables and chairs, donate food and drink and even donate prizes for a raffle. You’ll be amazed at how generous local people are if you just ask! Take a look at our business support letter to get you started.

TOP TIP: Don’t forget to let your local media know what fun you’re up to so they can help spread the word.

Grow your own

Basing your Big Lunch around a group of keen gardeners is a great way to get things rolling. You could:

  • Organise a plant or veg swap (all you need is a table with a sign on, and an optional donations pot)
  • Have a competition for the tallest sunflower
  • Offer a prize for the best tasting homegrown veg
  • Decorate tables with flowers from your plot

Here’s our guide to brightening up your street by planting flowers.

Fundraise at your Big Lunch

Lots of people use their Big Lunch to raise awareness or funds for a cause close to their heart, be it for their own community group or a local asset such as a children’s play area,  or for a bigger, national charity. Take a look at our guide to community fundraising.

Tips for the day itself
  • Try to make sure that your entertainment, games and activities are suitable for all. Here are some great ideas for street party games for all ages and abilities.
  • If you have music, make sure it’s varied, not too loud and doesn’t go on too late!
  • Set a time for lunch — it really helps to get the party started.
  • Have plenty of bins and recycling stations around to make your clean up easier and more effective.
  • Worried about the weather? Here’s our guide to battling the elements on Big Lunch day.

Take plenty photos and, most importantly, have fun!

After the party

Once the bunting is down and the tables folded away, don’t forget to share your story. We’d love to hear all about it, so hashtag it #TheBigLunch and share on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Keep your eyes on your inbox for our annual Big Lunch survey too!

Find out what inspired Laura to take action and see what impact a Big Lunch could have where you live.  So, what’s stopping you taking your first steps to being part of a happier community? Order your free Big Lunch starter packtoday!