Correcting the Myth of the Shortened Attention Span

What’s technology really done to our minds?

Reed Rawlings
Jun 19, 2019 · 7 min read

In 2015, Microsoft Canada reported that our attention span is now shorter than a goldfish. Sitting at a bleak 8 seconds. If you’re wondering how short that is, the average person would have been distracted by the time they finished these first three sentences. (I’m sure you made it through just fine). Even more staggering, in 2000, our attention span was only 12 seconds. That represents a 33 percent drop in fifteen years.

If the above claim seems unreasonable to you, it should. First, the study Microsoft cited measuring our attention span may not even exist. The BBC couldn’t find a single study corroborating it. Second, studying the “average” attention span doesn’t tell us much about attention.

Attention is dependent on motivation, knowledge, mood, surroundings, and countless other factors. So trying to find a national average is dubious at best.

I wouldn’t expect the average person to be as enthused about writing as I am, nor would I want to hear a lecture on particle physics.

How long we can remain focused on a task is dependent on the work itself. That’s true for every person, at every age, under any circumstance. It’d be ridiculous to control for all those variables. And if you did, you wouldn’t have much research to discuss. No one would be shocked to learn football fans watch the Superbowl more intently than non-fans.

Furthermore defining attention span, and what it means to lose it, is subjective. Does quitting a task count? Looking away from your keyboard or book? For how long? Does it not count if I resume work immediately? I could get stuck in a stream of questions, but I’d be given very few answers.

None of this stops pop-culture from ascribing certain phenomena to our penchant for distraction. It’s essential to understand how prone we are to distraction. And, what that means for our interactions with society. But, misattributing outcomes as causes will only hinder our understanding and limit discussion.

Articles touting a shortened attention span generally reference the same three culture shifts.

  • Faster paced television and cinema
  • Our inability to keep our phones in our pockets
  • Our love of slogans and headlines

I can explain away each of these points in far simpler terms than a complete rewiring of the brain over two decades.

Shows and movies need to be exemplars in their category; otherwise, they can’t compete. To me, a far better explanation is supply and demand. No one would recommend a lackluster show to a friend or coworker. Of course, this translates into faster transitions, higher stakes drama, and more action.

Our phones are addictive. Or, at the very least, they promote addictive tendencies. Notifications can prime us towards distraction. We’re incredibly susceptible to the sites and sounds of notifications. All it takes is the chime on your phone to cause a complete meltdown of productivity. This capture of cognition forms the basis of the attention economy.

It’s why apps like, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook can be so attractive. Every ping seems like something we need to focus on. Until we’ve opened the app, we won’t know if it’s something to interact with or just a random message. And, that’s the whole point. Because once you’re online, it’s significantly harder to get off.

However, I don’t believe is that this has led to a permanent change in our brain. Tech companies and social media have gotten better about manipulating our attention. For the same reason that movies and television have gotten better. They must. Otherwise, they’re drowned out by competition. This has the propensity to lead to some disastrous effects, but I don’t think a long-lasting change has taken place yet.

And we have plenty of ways to manage how our phones run our lives. There isn’t a requirement that we leave notifications on, or even use social media at all.

Slogans and headlines have always been snappy. They need to pack a punch to draw readers in. Again, this is a matter of competition. Readership means clicks, and that means ad revenue. Companies have an incentive to sensationalize things. Readers can counteract this by reading the content before reposting or forming opinions.

Unfortunately, people are lazy and trusting. If a news resource you already believe gives you a message in a headline, you have no reason to doubt that the article aligns with it.

If you’re pressed on time or eager to consume more you’ll move on. Letting that speck of information emboldens your beliefs. There are some obvious flaws in the way we consume and create news. And, it may impact our attention spans in the future. But, it doesn’t mean that we’re any worse at the moment.

So, if we can’t pin down attention span, does that mean we can’t improve it? Not exactly. Like I said earlier, our ability to pay attention is dependent on a wide range of factors. Some of which we can manipulate.

Strengthening your abilities in a few, you have control over increases focus. I’ll discuss three; impulsiveness, motivation, and environment.

This study by Landau et al. discusses the impact of high and low impulsivity and its effects on voluntary and non-voluntary attention. Not surprisingly high impulse individuals are more open to distractions. Low impulse participants saw the opposite effect. Landau measured distraction response using the flanker task. A standard research tool for testing impulse suppression.

This research argues that developing impulse control will lead to improved attention. However, Landau offers a warning — sustained attention may prevent people from noticing their surroundings. But I imagine that requires a level of absorbed flow only available in the most demanding environments.

Motivation has two direct mechanisms via rewards for manipulating attention.

  • Rewards impact attention and perception by acting as a motive.
  • Rewards act as feedback for evaluation and improvement. Where rewards are directly related to one’s performance.

Extrinsic motivators are direct rewards that, when sought after, serve as a motive. Since the only way to attain the award is through work, your attention shifts to support that goal. This could take the form of promising yourself a treat after studying. Or a night out if you clean the house. Here completing the activity itself isn’t rewarding enough. You must supplement its desirability with an outside mechanism.

Feedback for evaluation and improvement is very similar. The main difference is its ability to improve competence. Extrinsic motivators often undermine performance. Instead of completing a task well, you look to complete it quickly. The quicker you finish, the more immediate the reward.

Performance improvement and assessment tie goals to rewards. To reach your goal, you must evaluate and improve upon prior work. While this may not impact the end result immediately, it will reframe how you approach your work. Ultimately increasing the likelihood you can reach the same goal in the future.

Our environment can form associative cues between behavior and rewards. This association drives attention and possibly even our conscious thought.

It’s not uncommon to see a long line at a drive-through around 5 pm every day. It seems as though each of these individuals makes a conscious decision to eat there. But, research shows that their route home may prime their brain towards “rewarding” behaviors. The subconscious makes the decision because the environment provided a habitual cue. It leaves the conscious to figure out why.

In order to combat negative habituation, it’s vital to understand our triggers. Our best support for kicking these habits is getting to the root of them. That way, we can change initial behaviors that let us fall into bad habits.

Environment affects attention in more direct ways as well. The buzz of a television or the company of friends makes a poor situation for studying. We’ve already made associations to those objects. So, instead of focusing on a long-term goal, we seek the immediate rewards already available.

Meditation and its benefits have rushed onto the stage of western culture in recent years. And it’s for a good reason. The brain of consistent meditators shows a lot of healthy developments that non-meditators lack. In 2012, Giuseppe Pagnoni found that meditators had more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC relates to mind-wandering and random thought. Better known as daydreams and distraction. For most people, this part of the brain is continuously active.

The vPMC led to the conception of the default mode network. Regions of the brain interacting to connect various thoughts and deepen learning. This network is beneficial in learning, problem-solving, and making abstract connections. But, it can hinder our ability to give sustained attention to a task.

Experienced meditators reign in wandering thoughts like second nature. Pulling themselves back from the brink of procrastination.

While the participants in this study had likely been meditating for years, it’s never too late to start. And the steps to do so are rudimentary and free.

And recent work from UC Santa Barbara shows it may increase my cognitive health as well. The studies participants improved their verbal GRE score by 60 points. And, showed improvements in attention and working memory tasks. Best of all, they only practiced ten minutes a day over four weeks.

For the majority of us, it’s clear when our attention is an issue. Employers aren’t shy around performance improvement. And our partners and friends aren’t silent when we shut them out. But, that doesn’t mean we’re entirely immune to technologies grasp.

There’s a growing body of evidence showing just how distracting and addicting cell phones can be. But, for now, I’m skeptical our brains and habits will be permanently altered by technology.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Reed Rawlings

Written by

I focus on self-regulation — goals, compassion, motivation, focus, stress, and the tools to support them.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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