Some thoughts about “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari

A friend of mine asked me if I’d read this book and was interested in what I thought about it. I hadn’t, so I did. On balance, it was thought provoking enough that I found it a worthwhile read but I’d hesitate to recommend it. Here’s why1.

Johann Hari is a frustrating writer. He makes some really important points that I’d love to see explored more fully, but he does it in such an un-nuanced way that I found myself inwardly rebelling against the narrative path he’s trying to shepherd us down.

I very much got the feeling that Hari has had an Idea, and then gone looking for the evidence to back it up. He’s looked for people and research that will broadly support rather than challenge the story he’s telling.

The simplistic narrative is particularly evident when he’s looking for who to blame for the problems we’re all having (spoiler: it’s capitalism and big tech firms). His suggested solution is a “rebellion” against these shadowy forces wrecking our attention.

He does, to his credit, mention the controversies surrounding some of what he talks about – but usually in a dismissive way, often calling into question the motives or ethics of those who disagree. He’s quick to point out flaws in research that contradicts his views, while overlooking far bigger problems with studies that support them. All of the anecdotes that pepper the book are stories that support his thesis.

Of course this is all very much the nature of popular science books, but it’s worth bearing limitations of the genre in mind when you read it. Some of what is there is undeniably true, but if you read it uncritically you can find yourself nodding along even when the leaps of logic get decidedly dicier.

He’s taken a scattergun approach that is oddly structured (his “12 causes” aren’t really 12 separate causes at all – they’re a grab bag of 11 overlapping factors with one being bizarrely split into two for no good reason). The chapter covering both diet and pollution seems hastily shoehorned in without much distinction between actual research and pseudoscientific opinion.

There are some good points, and I can agree with many of the concerns he raises. But by taking a very surface level overview, and cherry picking his way to a good story he’s fallen short of what a book about attention could have achieved.

In particular, his chapter on ADHD wildly misses the mark. Although he adds some caveats, which sound like they were inserted afterwards by an editor, his basic position seems to be that ADHD is “mainly” caused by environment rather than a “biological problem” (exactly how he thinks brains work is a mystery). It somehow manages to be caused by both too much and too little structure in one’s parenting – although he’s careful to point out that most parents are “doing their best” and it’s not our fault that we’ve got it all wrong (he’s not a parent).

His anti-medication bias is also in evidence here, and he dismisses a plethora of research suggesting that appropriate medication can improve not only the quality of people’s lives but also reduce all-cause mortality for those with ADHD. Rather than looking at the evidence, he makes some vague and emotive links between ADHD medication and substance addiction and concludes that they make him uncomfortable, so must be bad. This is the kind of rhetoric that sustains the pervading stigma about psychiatric medication. It’s damaging and unhelpful, and one of my biggest criticisms of Hari’s work.

One of the points he does make well is that some of this comes down to widespread societal issues and that it’s really difficult if not impossible for individuals to singlehandedly make the changes needed to solve the problem.

I’m all for addressing environmental factors that contribute to difficulties with attention. I think making the argument for social changes – from our education system to how we set up and use online tools and systems, to social norms around how we structure our work – is really important; but half-baked oversimplified arguments are not always helpful. In addition, these factors don’t affect everyone equally and while you’re busy having the political argument about regulation of big tech and social media there are millions of people who are struggling and need help now.

By downplaying the inequality inherent in attention regulation; by failing to acknowledge that what might be merely inconvenient for some is disabling for others; by suggesting that all the answers lie in changing our environment and stigmatising effective and sometimes life changing medication, I think Hari may be doing more harm than good for those most severely affected by the problem he wants to solve.

  1. Dislaimer: this is just a quick summary. If I had more time, I could write a more detailed and properly referenced critique, and if anyone would like to pay me to write that review, I’m open to offers! ↩︎

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