By Kristel Tiburcio
As I was looking for studies on attention online, I came across a website with the headline “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than A Goldfish…” As I continue scrolling down, I saw more websites with similar headlines. Apparently, the human attention span has dwindled to just 8 seconds in 2013 from 12 seconds in 2000. This attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s attention span, which is 9 seconds (as claimed by the study).
The information came from a study made by Microsoft Canada using quantitative survey and neurological research. It’s a 52-page study that tries to determine how Canadians’ attention span has changed and how the company should alter their advertising techniques in order to still capture the attention of their target market. Again, it’s a 52-page study, yet most websites who reported on it only used the information about the supposedly dwindling attention span of humans and that it’s lower than a goldfish.
Fortunately, other websites and writers posted articles criticizing the websites propagating this information and even the study itself. I tried to look for studies about the attention span of humans, and it turns out that the term “attention” in attention span can refer to various kinds of attention. Furthermore, according to Jonathan Schwabish, a researcher and economist, the study does not even include measuring the human attention span. How is it, then, that all these websites – even those whom we may have thought credible – were quick to spread this particular piece of information about attention which is a widely-researched yet complex topic?
“… one of the pioneers of modern attention research, the late Donald Broadbent (1982), emphasized the dangers in the uncritical use of “attention” (Pashler, 1999, p. 4). Especially in this digital age, we should be careful with the words we use and the posts we put online; however, it doesn’t end there. We should also be critical with all the information we see on the internet.
The digital advancement of this generation has certainly influenced the behaviors of users online. I think one probable reason for misinformation due to uncritical evaluation of information we see on the web may be related to attention. Personally, there are times I am guilty of doing this – since articles are so long, I rely on the headlines or title of the articles and the brief summary that comes with it. It is as if we became accustomed to only paying attention to headlines and ignoring the rest of the information provided in the article. We find a particular headline as interesting, relevant, cool-sounding, so we click “share” on Facebook immediately. We might have to train ourselves to stop this habit and reset the defaults of our attentional control capacity.
The mechanism to which we are able to selectively attend to certain information is called attentional control. This develops in humans to help us direct our attention to cues that contains more information for us to be able to learn, instead of just reacting to whichever environmental cues are present (Wass, Scerif, & Johnson, 2012).
For those who feel like they are choosing the wrong information to attend to; and for those who are struggling in the middle of the night, cramming, because they keep on focusing on the wrong things; it is not too late! It is possible to train attentional control and investing in this type of training may also help in training your working memory (Duncan & Owen, 2000; & McNab, et al., 2009; as mentioned in Wass, et al., 2012) – it would be like getting 2 classes for the price of one!
Using the method of mixed training battery to train attentional control, it was found that young adults improved in tasks involving working memory (Schmiedek et. al, as mentioned in Wass, et al., 2012). The mixed training battery includes various tasks that specifically target one or more aspects of our cognition, such as sustained attention, selective attention, task switching, and inhibition (Wass, et al., 2012).
Although, known interventions and type of training for attentional control work better when done early in life as with young children, training in adults may also lead to improvement as shown in previous studies. So what are you waiting for? If you are not interested in sports or music lessons this summer, you better check out cognitive trainings (i.e. mixed training battery) and improve your attentional control and working memory!
Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada. (2015). Attention spans. Retrieved from http://advertising.microsoft.com/en/cl/31966/how-does-digital-affect-canadian-attention-spans
Pashler, H. E. (1999). The psychology of attention. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Schwabish, J. (2016). The attention span statistic fallacy. Retrieved from http://policyviz.com/the-attention-span-statistic-fallacy/
Wass, S. V., Scerif, G., & Johnson, M. H. (2012). Training attentional control and memory – Is younger better? Developmental Review, 32(4), 360-387. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2012.07.001