economics of social attention

Persons like to look at photographs of pretty girls and pretty boys. Taking objectification to a higher level, rigorous experimental testing (using photographs from Hot or Not, re-rated in a controlled laboratory procedure) has established that subjects discount the value of looking across time and trade money and work for viewing opportunities. These behavioral patterns are highly general and are also observed in biological markets among non-human species.

Subjects discounted opportunities to look at persons at a rate many orders of magnitude higher than the time discount of money. The time discount factor for viewing photographs was around 9% per second.[1] That’s about seven orders of magnitude greater than a monetary time discount around 6% per year. Internet users are commonly considered to have a short attention span. Perhaps a better way to understand Internet users’ behavior is that they have a very high discount rate for the goods that they commonly seek.

Male heterosexual subjects valued half-second looks at attractive female faces at roughly half CPM advertising rate for cable television. Based on subjects’ choices revealed in a monetary choice task, heterosexual male subjects valued looking at photographs of attractive females at a rate of $4.50 per thousand half-second views (see table below). CPM advertising rates vary greatly depending on the audience targeting and demographics. For general video program across a wide range of national channels, $10 CPM is a reasonable benchmark. Can Internet banner ads attract attention? This evidence suggests that banner ads showing pretty female faces and targeted to a heterosexual male audience have considerable attention value.

Value to Viewer Per Thousand Views
Opposite Sex Person
In Photograph
Heterosexual Viewer
Male Female
Attractive $4.50 $0.50
Neutral $1.90 $0.20
Unattractive -$0.70 -$1.80
Source: Hayden et. al. (2007) pp. 3-4.

Other evidence also indicates that many men are highly responsive to an attractive female face. Economists with impressive respect for bureaucratic work have studied the design of loan forms. They’ve estimated the effect of including on the form a picture of a female bank employee rather than a picture of a male employee:

A woman’s photo instead of a man’s increased demand among men by as much as dropping the interest rate five points! These things are not small. And this is very much an economic problem. We are talking about big loans here; customers would end up with monthly loan payments of around 10 percent of their annual income. You’d think that if you really needed the money enough to pay this interest rate, you’re not going to be affected by a photo. [Harvard Magazine]

Behavioral economics surely is a fascinating new intellectual field.

One valuable general insight from research in behavioral economics is the importance of a wide range of complex circumstances for human behavior. Humans do not behave as if a general-purpose computational device determines their actions. The researchers who studied valuation of photographs of faces suggested that their results point in the opposite direction:

Collectively, our results indicate that social orienting decisions obey principles remarkably similar to those underlying economic choices about food or money. These results suggest the possibility that a shared neural system mediates both social and non-social decision making.[2]

Taken literally, that’s absurd. Behavioral routines to secure food and sex go back to the beginning of sexually reproducing organisms. The value of money is much more neurologically elaborate. That token money mediates human trade is an amazing human social-cognitive feat. Discounting and trade are better understood as behavioral characteristics that commonly emerge from specific biological problem-solving.

References and Notes:

[1] Benjamin Y. Hayden, Purak C. Parikh, Robert O. Deaner, Michael L. Platt (2007), “Economic principles motivating social attention in humans,” Proceedings of The Royal Society B, Figure 2, p. 4. Financial institutions typically exponentially (in time) discount the value of money by the relevant interest rate. Human intertemporal choices in behavioral experiments are typically more consistent with hyperbolic discounting. The subjects approximately hyperbolically discounted future opportunities to view photographs of attractive persons. The differences between these two forms of discounting, while important, has little relevance here.

[2] Id. p. 1.

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