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
5/18/2015 | 12:01:10 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
Do we really know the attention span of goldfish? Did we figure it out by hooking them up to the internet?
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
5/18/2015 | 11:47:27 AM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
@danielcawrey- Well, if that becomes a problem people don't like, they'll change technology. Personally, I think the fact that we'rew adapting to our environment that we are creating ourselves is an indictation that a) we're makign the world we want and b) that we're adapting nicely to it.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
5/17/2015 | 8:03:02 PM
Re: Microsoft Says Short Attention Spans Are Fine
The fact that our attention span is shortening is not a good thing.

There's probably nothing we can do about it. That's disheartening. I've noticed that it's becoming harder for people to watch long movies, read books, or just plain relax. Technlogy has taken over. 
mejiac
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mejiac,
User Rank: Ninja
5/17/2015 | 3:00:41 PM
Re: tl;dr
@vnewman2,

"Impatience"...that's a very interesting point of view, and I think you're right. I'll hear my wife yelling at her phone because either a page won't finish loading or an app won't launch/work. I constantly have to reminder her that it's still a program that's running and many times they have hicups.

But  I do agree that we're getting accostumed to things loading instantly and not having to wait 10 min on the phone. But I think that at this time it's the nature of the beast.

What do you think?
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.

 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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