Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

Newsletter No.4

Dear LWP Readers,

The past week was a big week for yoga with the International Day of Yoga on 21 June. It was wonderful to see so many yogis and yoginis turn out to celebrate the unity of humanity in yoga – from Times Square to the Great Wall of China to yoga with PM Modi in Lucknow. I hope you enjoyed our special yoga features – you can always find them here in case you missed them.

(FYI, you can sign up to receive these newsletters via email every Sunday)

Weekend Thoughts: Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

In my fairly new role as a writer and the Editor of LWP, one topic that I spend quite a bit of time thinking about is the attention span of readers. Are human attention spans really shrinking drastically? It’s what the ‘authorities’ would have us believe.

Time magazine has declared that “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish” and so have other media majors like the New York Times, Telegraph and many more. Countless blogs jumped on the bandwagon thereafter (especially those concerned with giving marketing advice) to spread the word all over the internet that humans are indeed lagging behind the goldfish with our average ~8 second attention span compared to the goldfish’s much more impressive 9 seconds. It’s sent marketing professionals all over the world in a frenzy to help media companies figure out ‘how to market to goldfish’. The result? Digital media content is becoming more and more ridiculous and diluted in an effort to pander to the slightest possible periods of attention.

Origins of the myth

The articles touting the claim that human attention spans underperform those of goldfish, refer to a non-peer-reviewed study by Microsoft’s Consumer Insights (Advertising related) division in Canada in 2015. However, there are several problems with treating this study as evidence.

Notably, the study itself states “Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again”. And in fact, the 8 second figure doesn’t come from this study at all, but is sourced to Statistic Brain which in turn refers to a 2008 paper by Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use”. This paper is not based on a study of human attention spans, but a study rather of web-surfing behaviour. PolicyViz and others have done a good job of deconstructing the attention span myth based on a review of the credibility of the data and statistics being quoted to justify the damning verdict on our ability to pay attention.

Further, the Microsoft study itself says that “connected consumers are becoming better at doing more with less via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory”. This is an important factor. Maybe we are just becoming better at processing information and deciding whether or not we want to continue paying attention to something. This means that we’re not just ‘drifting’ when we move our attention away from something. On the contrary I would venture to say that we may be strengthening our powers of discrimination regarding what we give our attention to.

What is really happening?

This is what I think is really happening. With the democratisation of content creation, it’s easy as pie to create a website, make a video, create a social media profile etc. This naturally means that consumers are bombarded with ever more content and options to choose from. This naturally means that we sharpen our discrimination and will not give our precious attention to a video, say, when a minute into it we realise that the video is uninteresting, low quality or the speaker is, for lack of a better word, BS-ing. Digital marketers tracking our behaviour however, jump out of their seats at our appalling inability to commit our attention to bad content, shouting “goldfish!”

What’s the proof of my theory? Well there’s no study I could find to back this up (perhaps because it suits Microsoft, Google, Facebook and the like to have small and medium business owners believe that attention spans are shortening so that they will spend big dollars on marketing and advertising) but consider the following questions from your own experience.

– Do you have the ability to read through a long article or watch a long video on a topic that interests you?
–  Are you able to spend an entire weekend watching a series of a sitcom you love?
– Is it not a fact that gamers spend hours on end engrossed in games (take the recent Pokemon Go craze for example which reportedly caused 110,000 road accidents in the US in just 10 days because people were so fully engrossed in the game).
– Do you ever see people randomly walk out of a movie theatre because of an inability to pay attention to a movie they are interested in?
– How many more people do you know that practice yoga or meditation (which involves focused attention) today than say 10 years ago (according to US government statistics, the number of American adults who do yoga nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012)?
– What about the astounding success of the Harry Potter series that had millions glued to the books for days and weeks?

My take is that the ease of content creation today makes it necessary for people to sift through it with a finer sieve which behaviour marketers interpret as shrinking attention spans. What’s more, such thinking is even seeping into other fields like litigation advocacy with lawyers trying to keep the juror’s apparently afflicted attention engaged with all kinds of tactics!

Phew, you’re not a goldfish!

So, in my view, people are not wandering off from a webpage because they’re unable to pay attention or because ‘attention’ is being irreparably impaired, but because, on the contrary, they’re looking for something to engage their attention in a flood of often mediocre content. And that’s a good thing because our attention is the most powerful tool we have. The fact that we’re not just giving it to any damn thing is a good thing! Marketing companies use the short attention span myth to exhort businesses to spend more and more to money to grab users’ attention which often makes things worse with dumbed-down content and bombarding strategies.

From a deeper existential perspective, one might ask, who watches attention? How do we know that our attention is wandering? Obviously because something within us watches/witnesses attention and inattention. What is that? Are we not identifying with the wrong thing when we feel that we’re drifting when really it’s our attention that’s drifting? If we can observe our attention, then we’re not the attention but attention is just a tool we possess – a very intimate and powerful tool.

I’ll leave you to contemplate these questions this Sunday and hope that it’s a relief to know that you’re not a goldfish! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic so do leave your comments on this post. I’ll also take it as a confirmatory sign of your very healthy attention span that you made it through this article!

Weekly Digest

Finishing up with our picks from the past week on LWP, in case you missed them:

Professor Subhash Kak’s article, Ganga: The River of Heaven in which he traces the course of the Ganga from its descent from heaven to the rituals and traditions associated with the river.

– Shruti Bakshi’s Yoga Day article, Happy Yoga Day and Yoga for a Happy Day which discusses new scientific evidence that yoga can change our genes and reflects on the idea of yoga as a ‘Hindu’ practice.

– Beloo Mehra’s reflections on art and it’s aesthetic and educative purposes in the article, An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)

– An article by Nora von Ingersleben in which she finds a sanctuary of peace atop a hill in Bangkok, a city usually known more for its traffic and noise

– An introduction to Laughter Yoga

– A ginger-lemon detox drink recipe

– The final 4 asanas in our Yoga Day countdown: Ardha MatsyendrasanaGomukhasanaNaukasana and Shavasana . Hatha yoga teacher Ambika Gupta ran us through 10 asanas in our countdown, with scenic postcards from the banks of a Swiss lake.

– Last Sunday’s Newsletter: And Now, Yoga (Yoga Day Special)

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, suggestions and article contributions. Do share this email with those you think may be interested so that they can also and join the wiser-living movement!

Wishing you a lovely Sunday wherever in the world you may be.

Warm regards,
Shruti Bakshi
Editor, the LivingWise Project

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Shruti Bakshi

Shruti Bakshi is the Founder of the LivingWise Project. She has worked for several years in banking and financial services in London, Paris and Mumbai and holds an MBA (INSEAD) and MPhil in Finance (Cambridge). She is also a certified Hatha yoga instructor. Shruti writes about life at the intersection of spirituality and modern society. Her debut novel ‘From Dior to Dharma’ was released in May 2017. Her latest novel is ‘Yoga, Work and Life: Indian Wisdom for Modern Times’.


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