Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine - InformationWeek

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5/15/2015
04:21 PM
David Wagner
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Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine

Digital media, smartphones, and social networks are shortening our attention spans. But our brains are adapting nicely, according to research from Microsoft Canada.

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In slightly over a decade, the human attention span has dropped 25% -- from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 -- and is now 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish.

The main culprits are social media, smartphones and other mobile devices, and digital streaming. In fact, at the average rate of the human attention span, and human reading speed, you moved on to something else as soon as you read that first sentence.

A few of you hung on for the second. Here's the most interesting part (if you stuck around): According to a study by Microsoft Canada, this is the result of our brains adapting to our environment, and it is a good thing.

Look, that was a lot to take in all at once. To reward you, let me give your brain something else to watch for a second. Here is a cat riding a Roomba:

I bet you enjoyed that for a couple of seconds, and then about 8 seconds in, you were ready to move onto something else.

That's because 8 seconds is the current average human attention span. After that, we usually go looking for another stimulus. You got your tiny dopamine fix at the beginning, probably smiled at the cat and then thought (or felt), "OK, I've seen this. What's next?"

Social media, multi-screening (using a phone or tablet while watching TV or using another device), and having instant access to our phones has created the need to keep feeding our brains. The next fix is just seconds away.

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

(Image: ASpilot2be via jetcareers.com)

This is a behavior that is known and has been criticized in the past. This is part of the whole Google is making us stupid argument of Nicholas Carr, who said having information at our fingertips means we don't reason anymore. Back in March, I covered a study that showed that smartphones don't make us dumb so much as they make us lazy.

According to the Microsoft study, being lazy makes us smarter. Before I tell you how, your brain has been working very hard. Let me give you a new distraction. Here's a baby singing "Let it Go":

Was it hard to get through it all without looking at something else? That's because digital media and technology have trained you to "frontload" your attention span. You also concentrate in small, focused bursts.

Microsoft Canada's report is based on the results of a gamified survey of 2,000 Canadians conducted in the fourth quarter of 2014, plus field work conducted in December 2014 on 112 subjects using portable EEG and video. The 2,000 respondents to the online survey were divided into three equal-sized groups: low, medium, and high attention, each representing one third of the sample.

It also looked at the change in attention spans when people engaged with only one form of media at a time versus multiple screens simultaneously. The researchers found that study participants who were simultaneously engaging with multiple screens retained more information, were more engaged, and paid more attention than when those who were watching a single medium, like TV.

[ You think mobile devices are everywhere now? Check out what babies are doing with them. Read Meet Your IT Workers of the Future. ]

We've adapted our brains to certain auditory cues that basically say, "OK, you need to pay attention here," like a laugh in a sitcom.

In other words, we're not necessarily paying less attention throughout the day than we did before. We're getting

Page 2: More focus, more distracting animal videos

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
5/26/2015 | 12:34:55 PM
Re: tl;dr
@PedroG You're better off. All diet guidelines say to stay focused on your food while while eating. Those who watch TV, check devices, or whatever don't really register the food that much and are more likely to overeat.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/25/2015 | 6:45:29 PM
Re: tl;dr
It's got to be offensive to the person you're with that you would rather communicate with people via device who aren't present. But my guess would be that, if you take those people at the lounge and place them in the room with whoever they were texting and WhatsApping or Facebooking with, that they would then ignore those people in their company too!
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
5/24/2015 | 12:52:42 PM
Re: tl;dr
I agree. I sometimes wonder where are we going. I went to a lounge with some friends and notice in some tables two people seating next to each other, but they were looking at their phones rather than talking to each.  I think as a society we need to wonder what kind of values we are promoting. I really don't think technology isn't the main culprit but the culture norms we seem to promote in this age of constant connectivity. 
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2015 | 10:25:48 AM
Re: tl;dr
@Pedro, you are on the side of culture and decency and manners. Societal norms are changing, and we're raising new generations of people who don't enjoy what they're doing in any given moment unless they're sharing it. But I still hold to old belief that if you're having a great enough time in the present, you often don't remember or don't have time to take photos or tweet about it.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
5/22/2015 | 10:35:04 PM
Re: tl;dr
@ ariella. I tried that one time. I got a headache.  I prefer to make a dedicated time and focus on using social media during that time.  I guess I'm old fashion but while eating I prefer to enjoy my meal or the company of my friends.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
5/22/2015 | 12:50:20 AM
Re: tl;dr
@broadway. I totally get what you're saying but consider this: the machines are only as good as the humans who built them so by the transitive property :) they are inherently flawed.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/21/2015 | 11:26:41 PM
Re: tl;dr
vnewman, as a consumer of data, bandwidth and RAM, I think that's a lame cop-out statement. Humans have bad days because we're human. We're animals driven by unconscious urges and half-cocked emotions, imaging that we're being logical and correct. Machines and networks are unthinking, unfeeling tools. If they don't function properly, they should. Or the people running them should be replaced with more efficient technicians.
mejiac
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mejiac,
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5/20/2015 | 1:40:16 PM
Re: tl;dr
@vnewman2,

Very true.... and here's something interesting... when consumers (by this I mean folks that aren't in an IT role) use a smartphone that's 2 or 3 iterations old, they think it's a dinosour because it won't launch apps with the speed of the current model.

Those in IT know that the processor on even two year old phones is still pretty robust, but we know that the OS and Apps are optimized to run on the latest hardwared (by design?)

It is of no surprise that a company that provides a fleet of phones/tablets normally goes through upgrade cycles every 2 to 4 years, since even though the hardware has improved, the app that was developed to be used on those handled is still working as designed (in fact, at least on iOS, the devices are configued to not allow updates to be pushed)
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
5/20/2015 | 1:29:51 PM
Re: tl;dr
@mejiac - I think we are getting spoiled with the advances that have been made with data transmission speeds and improved infrastructure. We expect it to work seamlessly all the time. That's not realistic. Just like humans, these things have good days and bad days and factors that interfere with optimal performance. It's like we are addicts. We get used to feeling a certain "high" and when the technology doesn't deliver, we have a meltdown.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/19/2015 | 10:57:07 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
David, what about the oft-repeated research that suggests that once we jump from one task to another, it takes upward of 30 minutes to properly resume that first task? Each time I think I am going to accept this new data, I come back to that and the notion that task switching is detrimental. 
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