April 14 | 2020

All Mammals Want Attention, But Gen Z Needs Acknowledgement

Author: David Andrés Vis Larzábal, Senior Account Manager & Creative Producer, Amsterdam

If you want to capture long-lasting attention, human acknowledgement is the most powerful tool we have. 

Lately, I’ve learned to appreciate the “good mornings” to my neighbours, and on a trip to New Zealand, I was surprised at how upbeat and social these small civil exchanges made me feel. Talking about it to my Mom, who is a small, loud, warm-hearted Latina woman, she told me she often “feels like a fucking houseplant” in her surroundings where common courtesy is diminishing.

It’s not only this 62-year-old Queen: apparently Marketing’s most sought after generation, Gen Z, is the loneliest ever, with a high risk of mental issues and debilitating social anxiety. Even though these twenty-somethings are more connected than ever before, they experience less intimate connections and feel more isolated. 

Like all human beings, Gen Z has an innate need for the three ingredients of acknowledgement: recognition, validation and empathy. Our desire to have these three needs met increases as we develop a connection with a person, product or an idea. If, or when, satisfied, they form the foundation of trust. And when we trust somebody, we will (usually) pay attention to whatever they have to say. 

Captivology – the science of grabbing attention – states that to capture long-lasting attention, human acknowledgement is the most powerful tool we have. Simple acts of acknowledgement – even as small as your just boss looking you in the eye when receiving something from you – increases our level of engagement and perseverance by 33%. Paying attention pays off. 


Artificial Intelligence = Attention Imbalance

With the rise of AI’s ability to enhance our lives comes the slow realisation that we lack the ability to deal with its influence on us. In and of themselves, AI, bots and algorithms are not bad things. Bots can help humans help themselves as they mirror our behaviour. Social experiments show that when bots act like humans – occasionally being clumsy, and being enabled to admit their mistakes – they can increase the engagement levels and quality of work among human groups.

In the same experiment, when bots were deliberately programmed to behave selfishly, humans in that group reacted, forgot civility and turned into selfish jerks themselves. Bots reflect our own behaviour but can be used to badly amplify them. Besides this, bots and AI perceive human behaviour from their male-made perspective and are shown to be fundamentally biased, sexist, and lacking diversity.

As the influence of AI and algorithms rises in our lives, actual human interaction is diminishing. As screens get cheaper, human interaction has become a luxury good. The rich have grown afraid of screens: tech-free schools are the new must in Silicon Valley and digital detoxing is a trend. The rest of us continue to live increasingly surrounded by screens. And it doesn’t add to our humanity.

According to MIT expert Sherry Turkle, children who grow up relating to AI sooner than to people might not acquire “the equipment for emotional connection”. Letting your kids bark commands at Alexa might actually lead to them treating other children that way.

Technology is evolving way faster than we humans can to face it, analyse it and steer it to our advantage. “As AI permeates our lives, we must confront the possibility that it will stunt our emotions and inhibit deep human connections, leaving our relationships with one another less reciprocal, shallower and more narcissistic”, states sociologist and social networks expert Nicholas A. Christakis. These 3 effects directly oppose the 3 ingredients for acknowledgement we need from each other –  Gen Z’s mojo is reflecting it.


Paying Attention Pays Off

Surprisingly enough, when approaching Gen Z, marketers and creatives seem to forget the power of acknowledgement. The industry increasingly relies on big-data for sending out targeted impulses to as many touchpoints as possible. We might actually be part of the problem of this notorious attention-deficit generation that just craves acknowledgement.

Gen Z craves community and authenticity. Together with Millenials, they’re increasingly absent from public online spaces, preferring private groups, love podcasts and just “do not follow brands”. So what can the industry of desire-makers, as we creatives and marketers are, do to steer Gen Z towards a bit more human interaction? 

Appreciating the acknowledgement trigger and learning from it could be a good idea: to connect to relate, not to merely sell. To appreciate the long haul, not only quick wins. To believe in the quality of contact over quantity, even coming from the perspective of an abstract brand. To not rely on big data and algorithms too much, as it might be counterproductive. In the end, innate human need will prevail one way or another.

We already see Gen Z using their virtual reality on Fortnite, for example, to cultivate deep friendships by befriending and talking privately to each other for hours and hours. Gen Z is finding ways to evade the excess noise of impulses around them to get the acknowledgement they need.

Maybe it’s an idea to stop fighting for attention and start investing in acknowledgement. Providing acknowledgement requires reciprocity, paying attention, and ultimately earning it rather than grabbing it.



Further Reading:
  • Captivology. The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, Ben Parr, 2015
  • Humanification. Go Digital, Stay Human. Christian Kromme, March 2017
  • Will Human Contact Become a Luxury Good? Beyond Today. BBC Radio 4, produced by Seren Jones, July 2019
  • AI Now 2019 Report,  Crawford, Kate, Roel Dobbe, Theodora Dryer, Genevieve Fried, Ben Green, Elizabeth Kaziunas, Amba Kak, Varoon Mathur, Erin McElroy, Andrea Nill Sánchez, Deborah Raji, Joy Lisi Rankin, Rashida Richardson, Jason Schultz, Sarah Myers West, and Meredith Whittaker. New York: AI Now Institute at New York University, Dec 2019
  • Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World? Perspective of Psychological Science. Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth A. Necka, John T. Cacioppo. Sept 2017
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