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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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
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5/15/2015 | 4:47:34 PM
tl;dr
I forgot what I was going to say.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2015 | 8:23:12 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Like Mr. Carr, I've often felt this way over the last decade, and not without awareness of how it connected with my digital lifestyle.  If I'm watching a recorded TV show, I often find myself pausing it to check how much time is left before the end. Why? I wanted to watch it, didn't I? I find myself missing the natural break commercials gave me to get up and move around. Maybe that's the part advertisers are worried about (I was glad to see you note the study was carried out for advertising purposes) - on the plus side, streaming video gives them the option to insert fewer commercials more frequently to hold that attention span - annoying for me, but it does keep me put. The full study put it like this: "digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments."

That means, though, that we don't necessarily have as much trouble staying focused if we are in a digital environment. I've noticed this to be true for me  as well. Matches in some online games can last upwards of 40 minutes, but I (and many of my generation) have no problem giving that my full attention - but that's with constant audiovisual stimulation, mouse-clicking, typing, voice chatting, etc, all at once. I've appreciated how this can be a dangerous trend, but looking at this study and the amount of multitasking involved, I'm seeing the upshoot. A generation of people who could apply that to productivity could be great. Imagine that youngster who checks his phone at dinner grows up to be someone who simply texts his boss 'yes, I can do that' instead of interrupting the whole family's dinner with a ten minute phone call. That's not so bad.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/16/2015 | 12:04:39 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
"digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments."

Anyway you spin it, I am not buying it. I can't see how this is good. Being able to focus on one task is not old-fashioned. It is a requisite of being able to do that task well. Can't concentrate on something? No one can concentrate on something? We're doomed to a world of ever increasing mediocrity.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/16/2015 | 2:12:39 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Broadway0474- Well, be my guest, of course. But the more I read the stidy, the more i see myself in it. I don't concentrate less than I do before. I simply concentrate in shorter bursts on more things. It allows me to confidently switch tasks quickly which is something I have to do in a modern world. The data shows we actually concentrate MORE, just in shorter bursts. That seems OK by me.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
5/16/2015 | 8:11:31 AM
One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
David, I went past your first sentence. I believe the owner of that cat riding the Roomba wanted to use the cat's tail to help the Roomba clean the floor. These studies usually generalize. What about thos of us who practice meditation and have more attention span than that goldfish? Some of us can actually sit still for more than a second as well. This only means that in that Microsoft study no one practiced meditation and the sample was not heterogeneous enough.. :) -Susan
ANON1243441910735
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ANON1243441910735,
User Rank: Strategist
5/16/2015 | 11:50:54 AM
Microsoft - It figures.
Having used a number of Microsoft products, this study doesn't surprise me. They seem to have been designed and built by people with short attention spans and little attention to detail. However, the ability to focus thought toward a single end is a useful talent, and the people who have that talent have produced many of our finest works of music, literature, poetry and philosophy. Otherwise, every novelist would be Jack Kerouac, every poet would be Alan Ginsberg, every musician would be David Byrne, and every essayist would be Hunter S. Thompson.
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
5/16/2015 | 1:39:06 PM
Re: tl;dr
@Thomas Claburn

I forgot what I was going to say.
That was really funny. I was about to add something else, but I forgot as well. Something about attention span I'm sure.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
5/16/2015 | 6:28:50 PM
Re: tl;dr
I think our efficiency has decrease; there are some jobs that require us to fully concentrate on a task.  At lunch, i saw a guy eating his meal while trying to watch a show on his smartphone.  I wouldn't be able to enjoy either the movie or the meal.  I think it is clear that if we repeat a specific task multiple time it will have an impact on our brains.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
5/17/2015 | 1:45:31 AM
Re: tl;dr
I would love to see the researchers focus on the evil stepsister of attention span - impatience. I know my ability to remain patient has hit an all-time low, and technology, and the problems inherent in using it, are definitely the cause.
mejiac
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mejiac,
User Rank: Ninja
5/17/2015 | 2:58:13 PM
Re: Microsoft - It figures.
@ANON123441910735,

" the ability to focus thought toward a single end is a useful talent"

I share your sentiment. In any business environment, we're held accountable to provide deliverables....deliverables that do require our full attention.

Even though in the consumer world it does seem that the attention span is shrinking (I'm actually surprised that my son can keep calm and be entertainment on a single activity for so long, when most of this peers are asking "what's next" every 5 seconds), but at the entreprise level, this is a different story. Not being able to focus can easilly define the line between unemployed and employed.

 
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