Goldfish attention spans don’t justify anything.

Last updated on: Published by: Andrea 0

At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve been in meetings where the infamous 8-second time span was cited when talking about the demographic and psycho-graphic “realities” of generations, including the infamous Millennials.

Specifically, the so-called statistic is that most people’s attention span has dropped to 8 seconds (sometimes less), down from 12 seconds just a few years ago. Even a goldfish has a longer attention span! Usually, it’s cited along with hand-wringing about how if a business is going to stay alive, they need to cater to this and figure out how to say what they need to say in mere moments.

Make everything bite-sized and completely digestible. Improve the app, shorten the video, and cheapen your message, just to get the eyeballs.

Here’s the problem. It’s a myth. Complete and utter myth. Every word of it.

The people over at the Ceros blog have done the full breakdown, if you would like to read it yourself. The short version:

  • The research barely measured what it claimed to measure.
  • The paper wasn’t peer-reviewed.
  • The whole thing was funded by Microsoft in order to help sell short interstitial ads.
  • Oh, and the research never actually measured length of attention span — that was a quote thrown in from an un-sourced online search.

Also, if you think about the logic of the statistic, it doesn’t make sense. The so-called generation of a short attention span is also the generation of several edition long series of books — Game of Thrones. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Of Netflix binge watching. Of a constant side gig or side hustle that takes a ton of attention. Of programming complex and powerful programs. 

2016 Pew Research Center studies found that short and long form written articles tend to get similar numbers of readers, and the longer an article is, the longer readers tend to stick with it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a single person who won’t spend hours Googling and researching and watching YouTube videos about whatever it is they are truly interested, excited, and passionate about. Give us three seconds of something intriguing and a hanging question, and we’ll dig in. Heck, that’s why clickbait works. If we got distracted that easily, we’d never click on headlines that ended with “you’ll never guess what happened next!”

Add on to all of this the additional fact that measuring attention spans is notoriously difficult, even before you get to defining what exactly an attention span really is. Or how the heck you measure a goldfish’s attention span.

So, what? The point is still valid, right?

That we’re all distracted as a matter of course. That it’s so much harder now to get someone’s attention, and we all need to just adapt a bit to make our messages easier to digest.

Nope. At least not in that form. This all smacks of another well-known and much rightly-mocked meme. “Millennials have killed …” Millennials haven’t killed whatever industry is being talked about today any more than attention spans are painfully low. It’s like complaining that petticoats are getting smaller, rather than looking at this newfangled women’s fashion trend called pants.

It’s never been a matter of dropping attention spans. It’s a matter of looking for a convenient excuse for what is difficult, or a shocking statistic to prove how different things are. For dealing with the pressures and challenges created by an environment. In many ways, environments created by changes made to deal with the assumptions about what someone wants. Tell us that attention spans are dropping, shorten your content, and then point to the shorter amount of time spent reading as justification for that change.

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is more content more available to us now than there ever has been in the past. That means more decisions to be made every moment, and more competition for those decisions. Many of those decisions also feel more important, because we understand more thoroughly what kind of an impact they may have. Pile this on top of the very real decisions that comes as part and parcel of deep economic and social pressures, and of course decision fatigue comes in to play.

It’s not a matter of less attention available. It’s a matter of making sure that the point you are trying to communicate, the message you are creating, or the story you are trying to tell is something that piques curiousity. Something that has real relevance, not just something re-stated for the tenth time. Something based on anything other than assumptions. Something that highlights what you are uniquely awesome at and have a new idea, insight, or information about. Preferrably, something that respects the language someone speaks and the platform they choose.

In other words, something respectful.