What is attention scientifically

The 8 Seconds Myth: Why We Have a Higher Attention Spans Than Goldfish

At 8 seconds, our attention span is shorter than ever. Even goldfish can focus on one thing longer. Marketers now need to rethink and produce shorter, snackable content. At least that was the tenor when the news made the rounds last year. But what if the news belongs to the fake news category and the claim is not true at all?

That promises attention: For the first time people are less attentive than goldfish

In mid-2015, a study by Microsoft Canada received media attention worldwide. The research claimed that humans now have a smaller attention span (8 seconds) than a goldfish (9 seconds). The news spread like wildfire and spread to every continent. Now the time has come, we are regressing. This is due to the many different influences and stimuli to which we are increasingly exposed every day. If a family only owned a maximum of one desktop computer 20 years ago, the use of which was regularly argued among family members, nowadays almost everyone has several Internet-enabled devices that are used alternately. We scroll through the news feeds like we're on the run and post content on different platforms like we've never done anything else. Chapeau goldfish, you won!

Comparing ourselves to goldfish is fun and attention-grabbing. And it is also known that media consumption in any form is able to influence our perception and attention span. What the numerous studies overlook, however, is the extremely good ability of our brains to adapt. The problem with the Microsoft study is that it lacks a definition of the word “attention span”, but that it plays a key role in the entire study. It is also difficult to understand where the goldfish data came from. For example, the Genetic Literacy Project was only able to find one Australian study that deals with the memory of goldfish. As a result, they can remember things like a source of food for years.

The origin of the data is questionable - processing all the faster

The problem isn't the Microsoft study itself. The supposed research results were adopted by renowned publishers from TIME to the New York Times without even questioning them once. For example, the infographic about dwindling human attention spans included in the study comes from an outside source called Statistics Brain.

If you go on a search for the origin of the source you will not find it. On a website with a similar name, namely Statistic Brain, one arrives at a statistic that lists the supposed data, but refers to a source from 2008. It is true that the German scientists there are actually investigating the attention span in connection with web use, but unfortunately much too early.

Incidentally, the goldfish comparison is not mentioned at all in the Microsoft study, except on the infographic, which comes from an external source. At no point does the study recommend that marketing should be based on this 8-second period, nor does it make reference to the 8 seconds or goldfish. The research result, much discussed among marketers, is based on a single graphic in an otherwise quite useful study and is nothing more than an assertion. In post-truth times, we seem to believe what is being served to us more quickly.

More efficient information processing: How the attention span really develops

If you are now disappointed that the goldfish comparison may not be the truth, you can calm down. Because the human attention span is actually changing. The study was able to show that multi-screening or the use of social media reduces the likelihood of focusing on one thing which is extremely boring. So marketers who want a social media-savvy audience to do something boring and pointless over a long period of time should rethink their marketing strategy, said Jason Miller, global content marketing leader at LinkedIn.

Tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention. (Microsoft study)

In addition, the study came to the result that people who deal with digital media often absorb information more intensively and efficiently and filter out relevant information more quickly. Thanks to the diverse possibilities of consuming media, we have developed the ability to absorb and process more information in a shorter period of time. In addition, today we can multitask better than ever and find the crucial content that is important to us more quickly.

Those who are bored will be overlooked

The fact that the study is a Canadian study can be neglected. Digital media are not used very differently there than in other western countries. The much-cited infographic in the Microsoft study lacks any scientific basis, has not yet been confirmed and distorts the actual results of the study. What the study has shown us, however, is that we have become much faster at identifying relevant content for us in the abundance of information. For marketers, this means only one thing: the content must grab our attention and be useful. That doesn't change the fact that the content mix of rich, detailed, as well as short and crisp content is a good choice when it comes to engagement. There is only one thing marketers shouldn't do: bore their target group unnecessarily, because they can make decisions about relevance much better and faster today. And also actually has a much better ability to concentrate than her scaly friends - not the other way around.

Studied social science with a penchant for online and marketing. Was editor and content manager at OnlineMarketing.de from 2014 to 2019.