In May 2015, Time magazine published a 221-word article titled: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish.
Many other media outlets also shared this undeniably juicy soundbite.
The thing is, it’s not true.
According to a Microsoft study, our attention span had apparently decreased from an average of 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. But the study did not actually measure this at all. This bit of ‘data’ from a non-verified source was mentioned in the study but was not its result.
We love a good sound bite but they’re not usually rooted in valid, robust research.
The media is always on the lookout for something that will capture attention (ha!). The endless need for content makes any study ripe for the picking. And so many of these studies are one-off attempts to feed a particular agenda.
As more and more articles pick up the resulting soundbites, they can quickly become accepted ‘facts’ simply because of their ubiquity.
So it’s important to question these kinds of provocative concepts, even when they’ve been shared everywhere.
Here’s what’s true about attention span:
1. Goldfish don’t have short attention spans.
There are hundreds of studies showing otherwise. They are on par with mammals and birds when it comes to learning tasks that require attention.
2. Attention depends on many variables.
As with all cognitive processes, attention doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
There are many things that have an impact on how we pay attention.
You could be really interested in the topic or not at all. You could be hangry, tired, cold, tired, etc. All have an impact.
3. Measuring attention is difficult.
Studies that observe people doing a particular task can only tell us so much. We must factor in a number of variables and as with most psychological research, it’s a challenge to simulate what we want to measure.
Pay attention next time you read something that sounds a little too over-simplified.
Let’s not be so quick to reduce the richness of any human experience or behavior to a sound bite.