Attention to Detail

What does it mean to be detail oriented, to have good attention to detail, or to have good memory?

It can’t just mean paying a lot of attention to every detail. There are way too many details. There are actually infinitely many details one could consider, but people have finite attention.

You could consider whether your shirt has over 2 threads, over 3 threads, over 4 threads, over 5 threads, and so on, with no limit on how high a number you could consider. The answers would be repetitive (all yes’s at first, then all no’s after that) but it’s still possible to go through each number, one by one, and consider it. That illustrates how, technically, there are infinitely many details one could consider.

We need to focus our attention on what’s important. (Why think about how many threads are in your shirt at all?) How, then, do some people manage to have good attention to detail (while others don’t)?

Good attention to detail requires being good at figuring out which details are important, then paying attention to those details. It’s not about paying attention to any or all details (which wouldn’t work).

People with poor attention to detail often don’t know which details are important, so they give up and start ignoring most details (though they still do pay attention to some). Or they do pay attention to details, just the wrong ones, so they seem bad with detail because they haven’t paid attention to the important details.

There’s also a phenomenon where people seem bad with details even when they know which ones matter. Like you can say “the security code to get in is 3582; it’s very important that you remember that because you won’t be able to contact me when you need it”. They agree that the security code is important. But then they don’t write the number down and forget it. Or they write it on a piece of paper but forget to bring that paper.

People often read (or listen) in an approximate way that glosses over most of the details. The writer decided which details he thought were important to explicitly include in his writing, but then readers just remember a vague summary that leaves out most or all of those details that the author specifically said. It seems like most people think about some topics at a certain level of precision and more detail than that is lost on them regardless of its importance.

Often, those same people were paying attention to some unstated details instead of stated ones. They may have been trying to read between the lines to figure out the social status or emotional state of the author. If it’s a speaker instead of a writer, they do this even more – they focus a lot on body language, gestures and facial expressions, and that takes attention away from the words and reasoning.

People also often pay attention to their own emotions and experiences. Instead of remembering the specifics of the arguments they read, they may remember how they felt when they read those arguments. They may also remember where they were when they read the arguments, what they were eating, their children’s ages or appearances (that was when Johnny was a toddler) or their relationship status (e.g. it was while dating a particular person, while married, just after the divorce, etc.). Some of those are more common for long term memory than short term memory, but to become a long term memory it has to be a short term memory first. Or they might remember a smell, sound, sight or taste, from outside the book, that they experienced while reading. They might have great, detailed memory about this stuff. They have “poor attention to detail” because they’re paying attention to different details instead.

A lot of people have poor memory for numbers, mathematical symbols and words. They’re bad at remembering things in a specific order. They’re bad at remembering complete lists. Except many of those same people do manage to remember song lyrics with all the words in order. And some people who dislike math are able to remember a bunch of statistics (numbers) for baseball players or Pokémon.

One thing that’s going on is what memory triggers people use. To be good at remembering a list of things in order, you need the 4th thing to somehow trigger your memory of the 5th thing. Then the 5th thing should trigger your memory of the 6th. And so on. But people often have an individual, separate memory trigger for each thing (often related to a sensory experience, emotion or keyword).

I’m good at remembering lists of things, but if each point is independent (so they could be listed in any order, and they don’t each lead in to the next point) then I often wouldn’t remember them in order. If there’s a progression where each thing can help you remember the next, then I’m much better at remembering them in order. For example, it makes sense to remember the moves of a chess game in order. After each move, you get a new position where the next move makes sense as a move to play in that position, so knowing what already happened in the game helps you remember what move comes next. The moves in a chess game would be much, much harder to remember in random order because there’s a logical progression to them.

People have done research for chess piece location memory. They put chess pieces on a board and let expert chess players and non-players look at the position briefly and try to remember what went where. For positions that are similar to real chess positions, the chess players perform much better. They have a big advantage and memory and attention to detail. But if the chess pieces are in random places on the board that look unrealistic for a chess game, then the expert chess players only remember about the same amount as other people. (I got this information from a chess expert talking about it in a chess video. I’m going by memory. The non-players might have been poor players who are familiar with the pieces. I don’t know who said it in which video, and I have not found or fact checked the original research.) Even great chess players, who devote their life to the game, struggle to remember exact details of chess pieces on a chess board when they aren’t given much time and the locations don’t fit patterns they’re used to. Memory is hard without either a bunch of time and effort or else some triggers, pattern recognition or other aids.

Overall, I’m good at remembering words, logical arguments, relevant details, patterns and structured data like debate trees. I’m less good at remembering images, emotions or sensory experiences. Many people have the opposite skill set (e.g. better at remembering images than words). If you want to be a great philosopher, it’s important to be great at remembering things like words, arguments and debate trees. They’re more philosophically relevant and useful than remembering emotions, pictures or smells.

Memory for a category of things improves with practice. People aren’t born being good at remembering chess moves. They might be born with an advantage or disadvantage for remembering chess moves. I won’t get into that debate about biology and intelligence. But the vast majority of people, with enough motivation and practice, could get good at remembering chess moves, or movie quotes, or sports statistics. Good memory for a topic is primarily a skill that can be developed.

Some stuff can be remembered more than one way. Some chess players think in terms of images of the board more than I do, and less in terms of sequences or trees of moves. A debate tree could potentially be remembered primarily visually even though I personally primarily remember the words/ideas and the relationships between them rather than visualizing it.

Practice can improve memory. If you care about something and do it a lot, you can get better at it. My ability to remember debates I have (who said what, what arguments were made), in structured tree form (where I understand what was a reply to what) was well above average when I started debating. (That’s partly because remembering tree of debate arguments has similarities to remembering a tree of potential chess moves.) My skill at this kind of memory is now, after a ton of practice, much better than when I started.

Practice can have high or low effectiveness depending on how you do it. I often reread things if I’m slightly unsure about my memory. So I often check my memory for errors. I usually remembered correctly, but I keep double checking things anyway. If I rarely reread or reviewed things, I think I would have improved my memory much less. Rereading gets me good feedback that helps me judge what’s working and what needs adjusting (even if some of those adjustments are done in an intuitive, subconscious way).

Similarly, I’ve improved a lot at remembering quotes from my favorite philosophers because I frequently look them up. And if I have trouble remembering or finding a quote, I’m generally very persistent at searching for it, just because I want to remember it, even if the reason I started trying to remember it isn’t very important.

I also have high willingness to reread book passages or even chapters for discussions (even with people who use much lower effort – e.g. they’ve never read that Karl Popper book, but I’m rereading parts of it in order to explain the issue to them better). If I just debated without putting in rereading work, then it would have improved my knowledge and memory of Popper less. One way to tell is that my knowledge and memory of the philosophers I don’t like and don’t talk about much is a lot worse than for the philosophers I’ve repeatedly reviewed. My knowledge and memory has improved over time much more for Popper and Ayn Rand than for Plato or Kant.

Reviewing books, rereading debate arguments (both my own and other people’s) and searching for quotes have all improved my memory and attention to detail for those things. Other people debate without doing those things, so they don’t improve in the same way. They are practicing other aspects of debate. For example, some people really like clever gotchas, so they get better at remembering those for more situations. They may remember which gotchas worked and when they had a bad experience and got counter-gotchaed and then avoid using the same gotcha again (at least until they learn a counter-counter-gotcha that they’re confident in). Other people want to experience a feeling of interestingness during debates, and they optimize for that. So they practice things like talking about big or deep ideas and steering discussions away from mundane issues. They get better at that over time, which can make their attention to detail worse, since they want to talk about “cool” stuff rather than work out all the specifics.

Good memory also involves a good transition from short term to long term memory. In the short term, you remember more. As you forget some things over time, it’s important that you still remember the most important things, rather than retaining memory of some minor details instead. Think of your memory of something like an organized article or book outline with sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, etc. As time passes, you should generally still remember the sections even if you forget sub-sections. You shouldn’t remember a few random sub-sub-sections while forgetting the sections they go in. It’s good, however, to remember some more detailed information when it’s really important.

Good, effective attention to detail requires good judgment about what’s important and good skill at remembering. That requires practice so your subconscious can do most of it (both judgment and memory). Trying to use conscious memory is too limiting. And using conscious judgment about the importance of every tiny detail would be a huge burden. We can’t consciously pay attention to, judge and remember all the important details (which requires paying some attention to, and judging, all the unimportant details). Our subconscious automatically pays attention and remembers lots of stuff, especially in short term memory. We need to train our subconscious, via practice, to focus more of its memory on the right (more important) things. Our conscious analysis should help guide our subconscious rather than trying to do the entire job.

It’s also possible to do more with your conscious, without your subconscious, if you give it a different support system to partially replace your subconscious. Written notes are one of the main alternatives, and they can be pretty effective (if you consciously review them whenever things come up, so you’re not relying very much on subconscious memory). To be effective, your conscious mind has to be supported by something because it can’t remember a lot by itself. You can’t fully get away from using your subconscious, but if you’re struggling for some topics, you can rely on it less by partially replacing it with both writing and reviewing notes. It’s easier to consciously control what information the notes include, so if your subconscious isn’t remembering the same details that your conscious analysis says are important, written notes can help.

When people have poor attention to detail, they usually aren’t fully convinced that those details are actually important. Part of them is dismissive in some way. They have some negative attitudes about those details. This is common in philosophical debate. Many people want to ignore a bunch of details to focus on the “good stuff” like high level concepts that they find more interesting. They’re less interested in consistently getting logic or grammar right, or remembering what they said earlier in the debate so their current arguments can be consistent with their previous arguments, or remembering the other guy’s most important arguments so they can answer those points. They aren’t really convinced that correct logic and grammar, or consistency over time, or understanding and remembering other people’s ideas, are relevant things which help make discussing or debating advanced topics actually productive. (Advanced discussions or debates are usually not very productive, and most people agree with that, but many people seem to think they’re special or better in some way compared to most other people, so what they’re doing doesn’t need to change.)