Is Our Attention Span Reducing?

May 14, 2019 By Christine H, Writer
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With increasing numbers of smartphones over the past few years, we can now receive information at a faster rate than ever before, such as the latest breaking news or when a friend posts on Instagram or Facebook. 

Along with it, there has also been increasing concern about the impact of technology on our daily lives as well as society in general.

A few years back, an informal study had concluded that the average attention span of an American is eight seconds -- less than that of a goldfish! While the study has been criticized, social scientists are definitely seeing a trend. However, there had been a lack of data to support their theories. 

Recently though, the scientific journal Nature Communications published the results of a study that showed that the attention span of the general public has reduced over the past decade.

Details of Study

The study was conducted by European scientists from four different universities. 

It looked at data from different media sources, including Twitter data from 2013 to 2016, movie ticket sales for the past 40 years, and scientific publications over the past 25 years. They also looked at data from Google trends, Reddit discussions and Wikipedia from the past decade. 

Researchers created a mathematical model with three parameters – the “hotness” of a topic, the time that the topic stayed in the public’s awareness, and the desire for something new. The model confirmed that as more and more information is produced, the time people spent on each topic was less and less. 

Our overall available attention span remains the same. Therefore, the increasing amount of information competing for our attention as well as our urge for newness, makes us switch between topics more quickly. For example, when scientists looked at the daily top 50 Twitter hashtags, they found that these hashtags stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours in 2013, but only 11.9 hours in 2016.  Similar results were found for movie tickets, Google searches, and comments in Reddit discussions.

Interestingly, the results were different for Wikipedia and scientific publications – global attention spans remained almost the same over time.  Scientists do not know the exact reason for the difference, but they suspect that it’s due to Wikipedia and scientific publications being used for learning and acquiring knowledge.

What's Next?

The study looked at our collective attention span, not at an individual level. 

An interesting next step would be to look at the effect on individuals. Scientists are concerned that we may be negatively affected and cannot properly evaluate the information that we receive. If so, we would need to come up with new ways to communicate such that information quality does not suffer even when we rapidly switch between topics.

Source: Nature, ScienceDaily, Guardian