March 23, 2022•571 words
Reading time: 3 min
The human vs goldfish attention span claim
A claim you may have heard is that human attention span is decreasing, to the point where goldfish now have a longer attention span than humans.
After conducting extensive research (read: looking at the first page results of a Google search), I generally got the following from many sources (with more or less similar wording):
“Humans now have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish”. This is based on a “recent study” which found that we “now have an attention span of 8 seconds”, whereas it was “12 seconds in 2000”. It is now shorter than the "9 second attention span of goldfish".
Most sources follow up with describing parts of the experiment (i.e., it was based on surveys conducted on 2,000 Canadians, and electroencephalograph (EEG) experiments conducted on another 112 Canadian respondents), and other findings that came out of it.
I traced down what, I believe, is the originating research report by Microsoft.
Microsoft seems to have indeed conducted a study related to attention span based on gamified surveys conducted on 2,000 Canadians and EEG experiments on 112 Canadians.
Yet, what they've done seems to have nothing to do with the “8 second” claim. Microsoft included the 8 seconds, 12 seconds, and goldfish attention span claim in their report, but cited “Statistic Brain” as the source on the same page. This indicates that this claim is not an insight from Microsoft's experiment. The insights from Microsoft's experiment are on pages following.
Well, I'm gated from checking Statistic Brain's attention span statistics due to not having a subscription.
Upon further research, it appears that BBC picked up on this too, and delved even deeper than I did.
“The Statistic Brain website looks pretty trustworthy too. It even says they "love numbers, their purity, and what they represent" - just the kind of people with whom we, at More or Less, can get along.
As if to prove it, the number-lovers at Statistic Brain source all their figures. But the sources are infuriatingly vague.
And 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.
I have spoken to various people who dedicate their working lives to studying human attention and they have no idea where the numbers come from either.”
Brilliant. And this claim is still perpetuated today.
Regardless of the originating source, think about the external validity of the “8 second attention span” claim.
External validity is how much you can generalize and apply a claim/statistic/study to a different situation.
Our attention span is task-dependent.
My attention span per article might drop to 8 seconds when I'm attempting to skim through 20 sources to find any source claiming something contrary to the others, or when I'm scrolling for a video to watch on YouTube.
I don't suppose human attention span drops to 8 seconds when we're writing an exam, conducting surgery, chopping onions, or operating a sewing machine. That would be a problem.