There’s an urban myth doing the rounds that goes something like this: recent studies suggest that our attention spans have shrunk to less than eight seconds. Why is that number significant? Because it’s the attention span of a goldfish! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our attention spans are less than that of the dumbest fish in the ocean!
I’ve heard that story told with perfect seriousness by more than a half-dozen highly-paid professional speakers in the last couple of years.
Let’s look a little closer at the pieces of this story. If it’s true, after all, it’s truly shocking. If our attention spans are that short, we’re doomed to a kind of Groundhog Day of attention, forever getting eight seconds into things, forgetting where we are, and starting all over again – or moving on.
Does Groundhog Day The Digital Version hold up to scrutiny?
You can’t get much done in eight seconds. The average human reads at a speed of two hundred words per minute. In eight seconds, that means, the average person has read 27 words. That’s roughly ten percent of the Gettysburg Address, one of the shortest great speeches on record. To be condemned to a world where no one can complete and retain an understanding of the Gettysburg Address, let alone contemplate its deeper meaning, is a scary attention-deficit death sentence indeed.
Don’t forget Usain Bolt!
Or consider Usain Bolt, possibly the world’s fastest human, certainly one of the fastest depending on your yardstick. Bolt holds the world’s record in the 100-meter sprint, at 9.58 seconds. If the so-called research on attention spans is correct, he must have lost his focus a second and a half from the finish line. And the audience must have tuned out, too, just before that thrilling finish.
Finally, think about the average American commuter, stuck in slow traffic on the way to work, stopping and starting endlessly, for the average 25.4 minutes it takes to get to that place of employment. If attention spans are eight seconds, that average commuter must have zoned out one hundred and ninety times. It’s incredible, then, that the US driving fatality rates have been going down, on average, for the last couple of decades.
OK, you get the idea. The number is nonsense on the face of it. First of all, the original citation was not for “attention spans,” but how long people, on average, spent looking at websites when they were scanning the web. That’s a completely different thing. Websites can hold and lose your attention for a variety of reasons, from good and bad design to how interested you are in the subject matter.
It turns out that the 8-second figure came from a report from Microsoft. This report was designed to convince advertisers they had an ever-shrinking amount of time to capture a browsing consumer’s attention–not exactly an unbiased source. And it’s not even clear where the 8-second number in that report came from. Oh, and goldfish? They’re not as dumb as you think, either–fish can remember things for months.