Are Attention Spans Actually Shrinking?
March, 03 2023
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Did you know that human's attention spans are now worse than a goldfish's? Well, not really.
People’s attention spans are getting shorter has been quietly accepted, but is rarely given any reason beyond nebulous observations that smart phones exist and seem to take up a lot of time. While it might seem like a small detail, that belief will undoubtedly be used to villainize some and promote others. Take for example something like microlearning, a technique of training focused around give people small, bite-sized content. Microlearning undoubtedly has benefits, but in can be pushed as a solution to a non-existent problem. What is that problem?
What’s Happening to Our Brains?
The belief the world is seeing now is that mobile phones are altering the brains function. This skepticism happens nearly every time there is upheaval in technology. If records existed far enough back, one might find a fierce debate about if “tools” really are the way of future, after all, hitting things with rocks makes muscles stronger. Hyperbolic, yes, but ultimately that logic roots this skepticism—people are being made worse by something being made easier. For this article, it’s the accessibility of information that is ruining our attention spans.
The Disappearing Attention
"There has been a notable drop in the amount of time that people are paying attention to things" many articles claim, but here’s the fundamental problem of this notation: how do we actually know? Measuring attention spans is tricky and this is only proven by the wide ranges given in sometimes the same article. For example, one article claims that average humans’ attention spans have dropped from around 12 to eight seconds, loudly proclaiming that we’re now lagging behind goldfish, but immediately follows it up with public speaking attention which ranges from eight to ten minutes. Aha, at least we have the goldfish bested there!
The contradiction between eight seconds and eight to ten minutes is such a leap that it is hard to believe both can be true. Yet it can be because it misses the point. The problem may not be with attention spans but, rather, with the content.
What Requires the Attention, Anyway?
Different methods have been used to try and measure just how far people’s attention spans have sunk. One method used how long people looked at one screen, in 2004 the average time spent was two-and-a-half minutes while today it is a mere 42 seconds. What isn’t mentioned here is the rise of mobile devices, which can do everything a computer does and the primary way of communication for most. Beyond that, what does paying attention to a screen mean? Does it mean a window or website? If it refers to websites, in 2004 the total number of websites around 51 million and now (even cutting the number by 75% for inactive websites) it’s 407 million, only 12% of websites existed in 2004 that do today. Even if it refers to the amount of time spent on a window, computers are more powerful and can be used for much more, thus leading to the drop.
There is an argument to be made about the shear amount of information that people are subjected to now, but it does not seem to have much to do with a shortening of any ability to focus. At least the goldfish still have swimming.
And The Goldfish Don’t Have FOMO (At Least We Think)
The connectedness of the internet allows instant communication from anywhere. This inundation of information seems more likely to be the culprit than anything changing with people inherently. Not only is there so much information but much of it is specifically targeted to individuals.
There’s a telling statistic in “8 seconds or 10 minutes” article, that claims workers will check their email up to 11 times per hour, apparently never taking into account that email is one of (if not the primary) form of communication for modern workplaces. It would be akin to criticizing a painter for cleaning their brush too often.
The bit about checking emails does unknowingly have a point, namely, since information can be sent instantaneously, responses are expected to be instantaneous too. Why wouldn’t someone constantly be checking their email at work whenever someone above could message them at any time? Why not take the second and ensure there won’t be any problems or prove how attentive you are?
Maybe the Problem Is the Exact Opposite: Being More Attentive
What might be considered a dissolving attention span, maybe be the exact opposite: people should be more attentive. Well, they’re expected to be more attentive anyway. Driven by social influences, people could be dividing their time more because it allows them to connect with others. Slang, news, ideas, and a plethora of other things are constantly expanding and to not pay attention could leave one left behind.
This isn’t the only article brave enough to state that, actually, people are better than goldfish, some psychologists disagree with measure average attention spans. The reason because attention wildly varies from situation to situation. Even the same situation can change with experience how much attention people give it. Remember learning how to drive? The awkwardness (and maybe even fear) means that the new driver was paying a lot more attention than the same driver ten years later.
Attention Spans Aren’t Getting Shorter, Things Are Just Boring
It’s okay, things can just be boring. There doesn’t have to be any deeper meaning beyond that. The proliferation of computers has not shortened our attention spans, what is has done is allowed us to have access to the best content from around the world, picked for our specific interests.
Let’s be clear, this inherently isn’t a good thing and we will probably have to start taking internet addiction seriously, but it isn’t ruining our attention spans.
Lessons for eLearning
The most important thing to take from this is that if your organization can find or produce engaging content then you won’t have to worry about attention spans. Do not use the belief that phones are the reason, invest in what you want people to pay attention to and eventually they will.
As for microlearning, there does seem to be benefits for it like increased memory retention, but don’t adopt it just because of the myth of decreasing attention spans.
Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash