How to have great content: Rule #1 Check your sources

The persistent myth of our goldfish attention spans

Zena Ryder
Jul 20, 2018 · 4 min read

About the Author: I am Dr Zena Ryder, a freelance content writer and researcher based in Kelowna, BC, Canada. I own Boudica Writing and a version of this article originally appeared on my website.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of falsehoods being spread all over the internet and traditional media. This article uses the example of goldfish attention spans to remind us — marketers, copywriters, content writers — to take care not to become part of the problem.

If you’ve read anything about online marketing recently, you’ve likely come across articles comparing our shrinking attention spans to the humble goldfish’s. Or articles claiming our attention spans have shrunk to 8 seconds in recent years.

But there is no evidence to support the claim that our attention spans are getting shorter. (And, by the way, there is no evidence to support the claim that goldfish have particularly short attention spans.) And in the absence of evidence, we have no reason to believe these things.

In addition to appearing in articles about marketing, the claim that our attention spans are shrinking was also reported by The Telegraph, Time, and The National Post (among others).

What is the source of the claim?

A marketers’ report produced by Microsoft Canada. Not a peer-reviewed scientific article.

This point has been made by the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the Genetic Literacy Project and others, so I’m not the first to notice it. But I wanted to look further.

On page 5 of the Microsoft report, it says, “We know human attention is dwindling.” And the graphic says the average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000, down to 8 seconds in 2013 (compared to the goldfish’s 9 seconds). Here is the graphic from the report:

Source

And what is Microsoft’s source? It’s not a scientific study either.

It’s a company called Statistic Brain — which claims “to compile statistics and re-publish factual information”.

And where does Statistic Brain get their data from? Most of the content on their site is behind a paywall, but they do say this about their sources:

“Statistic Brain’s corporate policies and procedures dictate that each employee shall aggregate research from multiple sources including: varying news outlets, think tanks and white papers, focus groups, social media, industry standards and benchmarking, subject matter experts (SME’s), internal research, etc.)”

Here’s the screenshot from their website:

In other words, this is a company that regurgitates numbers from various other sources, including social media. No mention of independent scientific research.

I looked a little further.

Their “Chief Academic Officer” is not a scientist or statistician whose name comes up on LinkedIn or the first few pages of Google. There’s an app developer by the same name, but I assume that’s a coincidence, since there’s no mention of Statistic Brain on their profile. (The other half dozen or so names I tried did not show up in searches either. Or else when a name does get a hit, there’s no mention of Statistic Brain — other than for the Founder/CEO.)

I used Google Maps to look up Statistic Brain’s address (as listed on LinkedIn). It’s a suburban house. And at least one of the photos of happy customers who gave a positive testimonial is from Shutterstock.

Whatever other conclusions you may or may not draw about Statistic Brain, I hope we can agree that it is not a reliable source of data. My Google Scholar searches also did not turn up anything that supports the claim that our attention spans are getting shorter. And, according to the debunking articles mentioned above, researchers say that the claim doesn’t even really make sense from a scientific point of view.

In the absence of a reliable source for the claim that we have shrinking attention spans, we have no reason to believe it.

What’s worrying is NOT our shrinking attention spans. What is worrying is that a completely unfounded claim could have such traction and influence. We are all familiar with this phenomenon. This is one more reminder to be wary and check the sources you use for your content.

This is both because your credibility is at stake and because it’s the right thing to do.

Quite simply: Take steps to avoid spreading bullshit.

If you agree with that general rule, applause is much appreciated. :)

SOURCES

The Microsoft report

Time

National Post

Telegraph

Genetic Literacy Project

BBC

Wall Street Journal

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade