Magnetic and Attention Field Insights

Magnetic forces have long been referenced in figures of speech such as “I felt drawn to this cause”, “s/he has a magnetic personality”, and “design a magnetic website to grow your audience”.

While this blog has touched on this magnetic theme before, it is revisited here to consider the metaphoric connection between ‘attention fields’ and ‘magnetic fields’. These reflections propose seeing ‘attention governance’ as a key success factor of effective governance – whether it be for nonprofit or commercial boards.

Allegoric and metaphoric ‘fields’

Most figurative mentions of magnetic forces focus on the attractive power of a magnet. Pull forces seem to have more appeal (or magnetic attraction) perhaps than push (repulsion) forces. Yet, in public policy debates, so often the messages are negative and based on promoting fear. Rather than emphasising one side or the other, this post focuses on the ‘unity’ of polarised forces within a single field (see header image above).

The attention field mentioned in an earlier post was described as somewhat like a camera lens. This metaphor describes the centre of the field as being ‘in focus’, marginal and peripheral matters as more or less ‘blurred’ (and possibly distracting), and matters outside the focal or stimulus field as being invisible. The centre of attention is where knowledge is applied and gained. Beyond the margin of the field are the matters we ignore (the ‘ignore‘-ance field).

Applying a magnetic field overlay on this attention field, the concepts of ‘attraction’ and ‘repulsion’ come into play. What attracts our attention (magnetic attraction), and how that central focus (the figure) is contrasted with its contextual surroundings (the ground), can be considered.

This relationship between the figure and the ground evokes yet another metaphoric reference – to a painting, which depends on the interaction of both elements. It may also remind us of the perception tests used by psychologists where we are invited to interpret an image which can be read in two quite different ways. (Even when we are aware that there are two interpretations or ways of seeing, we tend to only see one at a time and alternate between each of them). Interpreting these metaphors, we see the point that it is only by contrasting positions or things that we can define them and make choices about our focus of attention.

The power of rhetoric used to persuade fellow directors of a particular position may be described as ‘attractive’. Sometimes, of course, it is merely the ‘magnetic personality’ of the speaker that persuades others to align with their stance.

Ambivalence – see both sides

To be effective in arguing a court case, lawyers need to be able to see the matter from both prosecution and defence angles. As with debating, having your rebuttals ready can make or break the outcome.

While most matters on a board agenda may involve clear-cut, black-and-white, yes/no responses, many also involve shades of grey and a range of perspectives of variable strength. Rather than only seeing a matter from two perspectives, board deliberations may require seeing the issue or topic from multiple viewpoints – not least, those likely to be most affected by the ultimate decision.

Your North Star and Lodestone

Located in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the star Polaris is commonly called the North Star, or Pole Star. Because it lies almost directly in line with Earth’s rotational axis, “above’ the North Pole, it seems to be motionless, while all other stars in the northern sky rotate around it (see Symbolically, therefore, it has been used to reference constancy, as a beacon or compass point guiding navigation, and decision-making about the journey or ‘the way’.

Source: NASA/Preston Dyches

‘Lode’ is a now obsolete Middle English word meaning ‘journey’ or ‘way’. Lodestones are naturally magnetised pieces of the mineral magnetite. Pieces of lodestone, suspended so they could turn, were the first magnetic compasses (see

While we can see each issue or topic on our board agenda as having its own ‘magnetic’ field, our values, mission, and strategy collectively guide our way and have a stronger magnetic pull than any one topic. Where the topic we are discussing aligns with the organisation’s magnetic field, it can be more easily supported. Sometimes major shifts occur in the broader magnetic field in which our organisations operate, and just like the Earth’s magnetic pole shifts due to changes in its magnetic field, so too our North Star may need to realign. When this happens, we are resetting our strategic compass.

For the 12 per cent of the Earth’s population living in the Southern Hemisphere, regrettably, our Southern Pole Star (Sigma Octantis) is barely visible to the naked eye, or even to a moderately powerful telescope. Of course, there is another ‘North Star’ much closer to home for us, as the Sun is always in our northern sky.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar (~1599) Caesar describes himself “as constant as the northern star“. This line was referenced in songs by Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”), Gerry Rafferty (“Right Down the Line”), and Bill Staines (“Lightship). Just as poets and troubadours use metaphors in their lyrics, we too use them as a shorthand way of describing values and qualities we seek to align with. Constancy and consistency are the values we associate with North Star references, but the term also evokes the concept of a guiding star, or central purpose we aim to serve. Combining these two themes then ‘an enduring commitment to our central purpose’ is the magnetic virtue being promoted.

Magnetic poles

Magnetic attraction occurs between opposite poles (North and South attract each other), while like poles (North/North and South/South) repel each other. This might be considered a flaw in the magnet metaphor, because in most deliberations and decision processes like attracts like. It may offer some useful food for thought though, about how we test the strength of an argument or position with opposing or contrary viewpoints. Examples of a diverse set of polarised or juxtaposed qualities and characteristics are illustrated in the animation below.

The notion that polarity is always about opposites and therefore about two entirely separate things or positions is challenged in some settings. As noted above, an artist deals equally with figure and ground, recognising that one cannot exist without the other. Also, equanimity is not achieved by taking extreme positions.

The expression “if you want to learn something, teach it” suggests the two versions of the relationship that can exist between a student and their teacher. While not portmanteau words, the combinations ‘teach/learn’ and ‘learn/teach’ can be applied to both the student and the teacher, depending on the dynamic between them (the polarity of their shared field) at any given moment. Similar dynamics exist between mentors and mentees. (Acknowledging, of course, that one party needs to possess more knowledge, skills, and insights than the other as one of the preconditions for learning to occur).

Healing Polarisation

In recent years, some political and media actors, especially via social media, have resorted to increasingly polarising tactics to divide the community and threaten democratic values and lifestyles. As these developments modify the external environment in which our organisations operate, they must be taken into account when determining our purposes and strategies.

Polarisation is said to be underpinned by three major factors, sometimes called an ‘iron triangle’, namely ideology, ethnicity, and religion. Its anti-social outcomes are the result of ‘othering‘ groups of people; emphasising differences in order to further divide, blame, and sometimes de-humanise the ‘other’.

Prosocial interventions are intended to help or benefit another person, group, or society. Research* has confirmed that those who engaged in prosocial behaviours – volunteering and spending money to benefit others – reported experiencing greater meaning in their lives. Such altruistic benefits did not depend on others’ reciprocity, and so were not self-serving.
(*Nadav Klein (2017) Prosocial behaviour increases perceptions of meaning in life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:4, 354-361, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1209541)

Bridging gaps

Kim Hudson’s new book The Bridge: Connecting the powers of linear and circular thinking (Clink Street Publishing, 2023), describes core patterns of two thinking styles which are quite often used in opposition to each other. The Bridge is a timely resource for those of us seeking to enhance social cohesion and a more civil society.

Inviting us to take a ‘view from the bridge’ between linear and circular modes of thinking reminds us that we always have a choice, and that either or both modes may be more or less appropriate, depending on the matter under consideration. The chart below offers a high-level summary of the three main elements of each mode and three key questions we can ask when we seek the view from the bridge.

See also:

Magnetic forces in board decision-making
Attending to attention and intention
Double-edged swords and paradoxical choices
“Am I thinking what you’re thinking?”: Perspective-taking Vs perspective-sharing

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