Speak in the Past Tense

The Paradox of Attention: Why We Prefer Your Past to Our Future


This article explores a puzzling paradox in the mechanics of human attention: while our cognitive systems are hardwired to focus on future outcomes for self-preservation, we exhibit a strong preference for hearing about other people’s past experiences. This dichotomy opens a fascinating discussion about the evolutionary underpinnings of attention and their implications for effective communication.

Evolutionary Roots: Focused on the Future

From an evolutionary standpoint, our attention systems had to prioritize future outcomes to survive. Whether it was avoiding predators or seeking food, the ability to plan and prepare for future scenarios was critical. Consequently, our cognitive systems are inherently geared toward future outcomes.

The Social Twist: Engrossed in Your Past

Paradoxically, when it comes to social interactions, our attention seems to shift gears. We become engrossed in other people’s pasts, often ignoring their future projections. This paradox can be understood as a method of social validation; our futuristic models are often validated based on the past outcomes of others.

Why Stories Captivate Us

The power of storytelling lies in this paradox. Stories, often recounting past events, captivate us because they allow us to validate our future-oriented models using real-world, past data. This validation process is critical for our social and even individual decision-making processes.

The Counterintuitive Revelation

While our own past may not captivate our attention, it holds immense power when shared with others. Our past experiences serve as valuable data points for others in their future-oriented cognitive models. Thus, there’s a reciprocal relationship where we use each other’s pasts to validate our own futures.

The Takeaway: Speak in the Past Tense

The main point to glean from this paradox is practical: if you want to capture someone’s attention effectively, speak in the past tense. By doing so, you are providing valuable, ‘solid-state’ data that the listener’s attention system craves for its future-oriented models.


The paradox of human attention serves as a testament to the complexity of our cognitive systems, shaped by evolutionary needs yet adaptable to social contexts. Understanding this can not only make us more effective communicators but also offer insights into the intricate workings of human cognition.

Author: John Rector

John Rector is an AI Futurist who predicted the next word in business™, starting with his notable paper from 2015, "Mommy, What's a Cashier?" Drawing upon 40 years of experience in the practical applications of high technology, he assists clients in converting uncertainty into strategic advantages within a one-to-six-year framework. With leadership roles including IBM executive and co-founder of e2open, he has a diverse and impactful background. In the AI sector, he has set benchmarks through his contributions to Mind Media Group and Florrol, pioneering AI-based services and content generation. His investment initiative, Waterway Ventures, is committed to advancing promising AI startups. His creative ventures include founding Bodaro and graphic design studio Palm ❤️. In education, he has launched Nextyrn, which uses AI for personalized learning experiences, and in art, he leads Potyn, an initiative using AI to create bespoke pieces. His ever-expanding portfolio features companies like Nozeus, Infinia, Blacc Ink, and Maibly. Operating from Charleston, SC, his current focus involves partnering with individuals and enterprises to develop innovative business models and processes for the rapidly approaching age of AGI.

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