“It’s not that we are distracted by the innumerable options of modern media, it’s that our attention spans have been eroded”, a view from Faris Yakob
Chapter 1: The Goldfish Myth
“Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”
Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket Magician
It is a truth, universally acknowledged in the media and advertising industry, that humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. This is unfortunate, and somewhat ironic, since it is fake news.
In 2015, an insight team at Microsoft Canada released a report called “Attention Spans,” which included this shocking statistic. It made headlines all over the world, from The Guardian to The New York Times. It continues to worm its way into innumerable agency and media company presentations. It’s a striking image, appending something that feels true to something we think we know, bolstered by association to a reputable source. It is a case study in how fake news spreads because it is false in every conceivable way.
The Microsoft report was based on studying brain activity but the headline was not derived from that research. It is sourced to a company called Statistic Brain, which appears, upon visiting the site, to be a research company. A chart with the fishy fact appears there. A reverse image search leads to the source of the claim, a software manual called Building Information Modeling and Construction Management. Here the chart is sourced to the National Center for Biotechnology Information and US Library of Medicine but when asked, both denied any knowledge of research that supports it.
The ‘goldfish fact’ was entirely fabricated.
The comparison doesn’t even make sense. First of all, you think you know that a goldfish has a short attention span, but think carefully – don’t you mean you think goldfish have an eight-second memory? The factoid adapts that piece of folk knowledge to suit its persuasive purpose. Further, it turns out that goldfish do not even have short memories! Quite the contrary, they are “a model system for studying the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory” according to Professor Felicity Huntingford at the University of Glasgow.
Motivated reasoning means we want to believe certain things more than others. “That’s why I can’t concentrate!” we thought. “It’s not that we are distracted by the innumerable options of modern media, it’s that our attention spans have been eroded.”
What do we think we are even saying? Scientists don’t recognise the idea of a normative ‘attention span’. How much attention we apply to something depends on what we are trying to achieve.
It’s a psychological faculty evolved over millions of years, but it’s changed dramatically in ten?
If it were getting shorter, why are films getting longer? How do surgeons or video gamers manage?
Our susceptibility to believe this nonsense indicates how dim our understanding of attention truly is. The lie feels true, which increasingly has currency, because we are suddenly faced with abundance, where very recently there was scarcity. We live surrounded by innumerable channels all clamoring for attention to flow to them.