Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IoT
IoT
IT Life
Commentary
5/15/2015
04:21 PM
David Wagner
David Wagner
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
100%
0%

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.

6 Job Search Apps That Restore Your Dignity
6 Job Search Apps That Restore Your Dignity
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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
We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Previous
1 of 2
Next
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 2 / 5   >   >>
Kelly22
50%
50%
Kelly22,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 3:48:08 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Sometimes (well, most of the time) I prefer task-switching, especially when my to-do list is long. If I focus too long on one project, I start to worry about all the other things I'm not doing. Breaking up each activity into chunks seems more productive, even if I'm only doing a little at a time.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 3:06:50 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Broadway0474- Yes, true multi-tasking as I think we define it is still dificult to impossible. But task switching quickly is possible. You brain just breaks stuff up into tasks differently than we describe them with language. But I wouldn't try to write a story while juggling knives and singing the Friends theme. There are limits. :)
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 3:04:41 PM
Re: Attention Spans: Sad for Man, Great for Goldfish
@technocrati- Well, if we're in direct competition with goldfish, I know the solution. Give them smartphones.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 2:57:34 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@Kelly22- Right, the alternative is to reject the technology which is cool. But it clearly isn't currently happening. If we want to go back to books and scrolls, our attention span will go up again, and pretty fast apparently.
Kelly22
50%
50%
Kelly22,
User Rank: Strategist
5/19/2015 | 1:42:03 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
At first, it seems strange to interpret this as good news. How could we be happy about our attention spans getting shorter? But you make a good point in saying that this is the world we have created. With emails, text messages and news updates popping up every few minutes (/seconds), our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at once - and that technology isn't going away. If we couldn't adapt, that would be a bad sign for the future.
Technocrati
50%
50%
Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:40:13 PM
Of course Microsoft supports a short attention span.......
.....it helps you forget just how many updates you have installed.
Technocrati
50%
50%
Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:36:30 PM
Attention Spans: Sad for Man, Great for Goldfish
"....the human attention span .......is now 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish."

I knew I could count on you Dave to catch this one, when I first heard this headline, I really could not believe my ears.

But after thinking about it awhile ( apparently 7.5 secs before my attention would turn to the latest new wonder) - It was easily understandable, this discovery explains alot assuming it is somewhat true and I do think it is reasonably close.

The old saying of "Dumb as a rock" might not be that far off either.

This is a sad day for mankind in my opinion and a great day for goldfish in general.
Broadway0474
50%
50%
Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
5/18/2015 | 10:16:30 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
David, thanks for the detailed explanation. I suppose I am stuck on the notion (perhaps specious) that multitasking is actually impossible. But what you're saying is that we can concentrate on one thing at a time still, but we can do it quicker before we move to the next thing. SO ... multitasking is still impossible, right?
Ariella
50%
50%
Ariella,
User Rank: Author
5/18/2015 | 2:27:20 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
@David yes, it's not natural for humans, especially young humans, to sit and stay focused for hours. I saw a video today of a school that is very successful at reaching its students, in part, by encouraging them to move and dance around in the class. See the video on Ron Clark Academy here 

 

David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/18/2015 | 2:12:47 PM
Re: One second less than the attention span of a goldfish?
@ariella- I think doodling is a good analogy. Also fidgeting. There's been some evidence that fidgeting or even getting up and walking around helps us learn rather than sitting still.
<<   <   Page 2 / 5   >   >>
Slideshows
IT Careers: Top 10 US Cities for Tech Jobs
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  1/14/2020
Commentary
Predictions for Cloud Computing in 2020
James Kobielus, Research Director, Futurum,  1/9/2020
News
What's Next: AI and Data Trends for 2020 and Beyond
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  12/30/2019
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
State of the Cloud
State of the Cloud
Cloud has drastically changed how IT organizations consume and deploy services in the digital age. This research report will delve into public, private and hybrid cloud adoption trends, with a special focus on infrastructure as a service and its role in the enterprise. Find out the challenges organizations are experiencing, and the technologies and strategies they are using to manage and mitigate those challenges today.
Video
Current Issue
The Cloud Gets Ready for the 20's
This IT Trend Report explores how cloud computing is being shaped for the next phase in its maturation. It will help enterprise IT decision makers and business leaders understand some of the key trends reflected emerging cloud concepts and technologies, and in enterprise cloud usage patterns. Get it today!
Slideshows
Flash Poll