by Tom McBride

The Mindset List of Shrinking Attention Spans

Tom McBride

In the 1600s the philosopher Blaise Pascal said that the world was troubled because so few of its inhabitants could sit in a quiet room alone for an hour without interruption. By this standard, the world is in trouble indeed. The distinguished journal New Philosopher recently called “Distraction” a leading issue of our time and devoted a whole issue to it.  Here is a quick & dirty overview of the issue: a conversation starter for the Age of All-Too-Shortened Focus.

1 2015: Citing a dubious footnote in a Microsoft study, leading media publications proclaimed that the average human attention span is now one-second fewer than that of the average goldfish—whose focus lasts 9 seconds.

2 Goldfish have long been known by marine biologists for their excellent memory and learning capacities.

3 A California professor of “info-metrics” has found that average human screen time has declined from 2+ minutes in 2004 to 47 seconds today.

4 More impulsive personalities and those considered “neurotic” allegedly have shorter screen- time focus.

5 The California professor has found that shrinking ability to focus on a screen is correlated with higher blood pressure.

6 Commercials of 60 seconds were not unusual 20 years ago; now they may be as short as 6.

7 Films made only 15 years ago—such as Atonement and Children of Men—had scenes that lasted up to six minutes.

8 Movie scenes today are shorter than they used to be, and so is the average film’s feature length, but this trend may be due to controlling financial risks as much as to a shorter customer attention span.  

9 It has long been an academic consensus that student attention during a lecture peaks after about 15 minutes and declines thereafter—though the charisma of the lecturer may well lengthen the focus.

10 It seems that we self-interrupt almost as often as we are interrupted—even if our task is not disrupted by a phone call or text message ping, we call or text someone ourselves.

11 On the premise that there are so many features but so little time, websites are now locked into a vicious “attention-economy” struggle—where click bait” is of inestimable value.

12 Those who deny that attention spans area shrinking point out that such spans are task-dependent and that there is no good evidence that people cannot focus on jobs that require longer to complete.

13 Switching often among tasks is sometimes termed “switch costs,” leading to more anxiety, less concentration, and more errors.

14 Some management experts advocate that companies mandate certain times of the day when emails can be neither sent nor received: it is easier to go cold turkey collectively than individually.

15 In Ireland and France are “right to disconnect” regulations that prohibit employers from intruding on employees’ time—with emails or texts—once they are off work and this permits them, if they wish, to lock their phones in a drawer until morning comes.

16 TED talks may be no longer than 18 minutes.

17 On YouTube there are at least 10 videos on the intricate philosophy of existentialism—none longer than 14 minutes.

18 Multi-tasking may be an over-hyped and inefficient “skill” unless you are walking and chewing gum at once or singing in the shower.

19 Some research shows that if you are interrupted doing task 1 you will not return to it for an average of 25 minutes but rather move on to task 2 until you are interrupted again and then move on to task 3.

20 Hiding social media apps on your phone so that you have to work hard to find them might lead to lower hypertension.

21 Those giving public talks might note that Americans check their phones an average of 352 times per day.

22 In a 2009 Pixar film called Up, Squirrel the Talking Dog was distracted with pitiful ease by almost anything.

23 Daily news podcasts are quick to point out that they can cover essential information in under 5 minutes.

24 ADHD diagnoses in children increased fivefold between 1999 and 2010; in adults, they doubled from 2007-2016.

25 This List has taken only a few minutes, tops, to read, but in the spirit of our times of reduced attention, the author is loath to make it longer.

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