Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? (An Internet Mystery)

I was going to write a post about flakiness. I really was! I had been inspired by a segment in Eric Barker’s Barking Up The Wrong Tree and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and saw a connection between the two. In order to write my own thing, however, I needed to do some of my own research after making the statement, “We all know that millennials and the succeeding generations have lower attention spans.”

I had heard it many places before. Maybe it was an article in Time or in The New York Times, but I knew I had heard it somewhere. But some of these claims should have tipped me off. (Paraphrasing here) “People now have lower attention spans than goldfish!” Really? For some reason, I’d always thought that goldfish have an attention span of 3 seconds. Is that true? A Google search doesn’t tell you. It only gives you this beautiful, beautiful article from the BBC.

Apparently, according to that BBC article, there isn’t a definitive answer to how long a goldfish’s attention span lasts. They say, and I quote, “So goldfish don’t have short attention spans or memories. There is no evidence human attention spans are shrinking.” So, then where did the “evidence” for the statement that they were really come from? If you click on the ‘Time’ link above, you’ll see the article that I’m talking about. You know what, to save time, I’ll just link it here again.

Time cites an article that is supposed to come from Microsoft Canada, but you’ll notice that their link doesn’t work. It’ll take you here. But again, through the magic of Google, we can an internet PDF here. In case you aren’t crazy about zooming across the internet on a wild goose chase and aren’t clicking the links, I’ll just show you what’s happening.

Attention span.PNG

The Microsoft PDF is beautiful and vibrant (exactly what us young people buy into. Me included.) On page 6, there is an illustration telling us that we have lost 4 seconds worth of attention span in 13 years! And what’s this? We’ve lost ground to goldfish! GOLDFISH! What is to be done?

Fortunately, Simon Maybin, the writer of the BBC post talked to an expert and, as I’d quoted before, found “no evidence [that] human attention spans are shrinking.”

The tale gets stranger as you try to find the source of this source. As you can see in the little text at the bottom of the sixth page that the source was Statistic Brain. The cite will ask you to spend money. Don’t do it. Maybin did some poking around their site. Somehow, he accessed the article (Again, I stopped when they asked for money and refused to release the names of their authors) and wrote, “when I contact the listed sources – the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press – neither can find any record of research that backs up the stats. My attempts to contact Statistic Brain came to nothing too.”

As a lone little blogger on this big, BIG whale of a world called the internet, I can’t tell you exactly what is going on here. All I can say is that we aren’t dealing with goldfish brains, but we are dealing with information overload. When there is so much information and research being cited out there on the internet, it becomes a wonderful nesting ground for all the bad information as well. We have big companies all citing the same source (or pulling from each other) without checking it out for themselves and no apology, correction, or attempt to acknowledge the error.

Look, I know this isn’t a huge deal. It’s not like they lied about something intentionally, and what they did can’t really be written off as lying. It’s just regurgitation, and we’re all guilty of it.  We can be wrong, and sometimes the damages are minimal, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to calmly alert one another and be right together. We have to ask ourselves if the authors of Time and The New York Times ever saw the BBC article and realized, “Oh damn, I totally should have checked that out!”

At this point, it really doesn’t matter. Another internet mystery solved-ish.



I know that this blog is just as capable of committing the same error and that’s why I’m willing to fix it. If ever there is a time where I’ve gotten something wrong, please click that contact option on the menu at the top of every page to let me know.

3 responses to “Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? (An Internet Mystery)”

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