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.

more efficient. We've adapted to a stimulus-rich environment by learning how to manage our concentration resources better. We're remembering more of what we watch when we switch back and forth between tasks.

So let's switch again. Here's a video of a dancing otter:

The study also explored three distinct kinds of attention: Sustained concentration (focusing on a task for a long time); task switching (switching between tasks while still maintaining concentration); and selective attention (avoiding distractions). We might be getting worse at sustained concentration, but we're getting better at the other two. And we're adapting the way we accomplish tasks to make up for the lack of sustained concentration.

In fact, it might even be all those distractions themselves making us better at this. The brain likes to track moving things. It is a survival instinct from our hunting days. All these distractions are the "moving targets" of the 21st century. Like we encoded the memory of how we killed the jaguar with a spear better than we encoded the memory of sitting by the camp fire, we encode the memory of the 21st century deluge of data better than we encode periods of sustained concentration.

Sure, it sounds bad to say a human has a shorter attention span than a goldfish, but what the heck does a goldfish do all day? Swim around its bowl. Does a goldfish need to be constantly shifting concentration from the little plastic castle to the little diver, and back to the little castle? No. Humans, on the other hand, do need to shift attention. So this is OK.

There are limits, of course. Because the Microsoft Canada study was conducted to measure the effectiveness of online marketing, the researchers didn't delve into the potential downsides. They paint the rosiest picture of how our media-rich world isn't rotting our brains. Rather, it's rewiring them with a positive adaptation.

What do you think? Is the modern world changing your brain? Do you have a better or worse attention span than you used to? Do you feel you have better retention when you multi-screen than when you're in a single-screen situation? Tell us in the comments section below.

Oh, and for paying such good attention, you get one more bonus video:

[Did you miss any of the InformationWeek Conference in Las Vegas last month? Don't worry: We have you covered. Check out what our speakers had to say and see tweets from the show. Let's keep the conversation going.]

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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