Do humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to digitization?

The average human attention span is estimated to be…oh look, a squirrel!

Everyone knows our attention spans are getting shorter. It’s just intuitive and obvious. Or is it?

There’s been a pervasive rumour circulating around the internet since a 2015 report was released by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada, who surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also studied the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks.

According to the non-peer reviewed study, people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. The study apparently highlights the affects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain. Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile and digitization revolution began) the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds.

That is less than the nine-second attention span of your average goldfish.
Image 2017-07-19 at 1.23.35 PM.public

The problem is, there is no science to actually back these amusingly fishy claims. Sure, digitization has created distractions on pages that we all read online; images, hyperlinks, social media links, likes, etc. It certainly feels that it can be much harder to stay focused at times. So it’s intuitive to believe that our attention spans are deteriorating, but there actually isn’t any evidence to suggest that this is the case.

No definition of attention span was given in Microsoft’s report, and it’s not at all clear how these numbers were developed.

While the report made some good, self evident, marketing points, it talks more about how attention shifts more quickly between technologies, not that attention span is declining, per se.

What’s behind this Microsoft report? As PolicyViz pointed out, the study cited didn’t even look at attention spans. The Microsoft post was aimed at advertisers (it was never intended to be used as research).

The real problem that stems from digitization is that it can lead us to multitask. And no matter what we may like to believe about ourselves, science says nobody can multitask effectively; but this is a different matter all together.

When it comes to attention spans, however, there does not seem to be any evidence suggesting that digitization has lead to its decline. For example, a group of researchers found that expert video gamers could “track objects moving at greater speeds, better detected changes to objects stored in visual short-term memory, switched more quickly from one task to another, and mentally rotated objects more efficiently.” In other words, their attention was better.

And as for goldfish, this Australian study debunks the myth; there isn’t even any evidence to suggest that goldfish have a short attention span. According to the study, goldfish can remember items, for example, food sources, for years.

So what’s the TLDR of all of this?

  1. Attention spans have not been affected by digitization; though multitasking may be a problem.
  2. Sexy headlines grab attention. While the narrative that goldfish have greater attention spans than humans circulated widely in the popular media (e.g.. Time magazine, the Telegraph, the Guardian, USA Today, the New York Times or the National Post) and the internet, the story actually was never true. Had journalists done their jobs, they would have determined that the report from Microsoft was based on nothing at all. Perhaps there is another story in here — has digitization increased the pervasiveness of fake news? Maybe – but that story is for another blog post.

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