Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is
useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the
emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see
and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes
the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom
settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.
After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people
who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and
started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but
having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is
their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.
(This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the
rider still a novice.)