Microsoft Study: Human Attention Spans Shrinking, Less Than Goldfish


A Microsoft study of 2,000 participants revealed that pocket-sized devices and digital content omnipresence has compromised people's attention span, which is now estimated to be less than nine seconds — that is, shorter than the attention span of a goldfish.

Fifteen years earlier, people's attention span was estimated at twelve seconds, but today's digitally driven lifestyles have triggered an attention span shrinkage. As a result individuals are having a hard time focusing on a single task. The report showed that "[Surveyed participants] with more digital lifestyles struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed."

The authors observed that this is the case mostly with late adopters of digital media and high-tech devices:

"While digital lifestyles decrease sustained attention overall, it's only true in the long-term. Early adopters and heavy social media users front load their attention and have more intermittent bursts of high attention. They're better at identifying what they want/don't want to engage with and need less to process and commit things to memory."

Microsoft surveyed 2,000 Canadians that liked to play games online. Using electroencephalograms (EEGs), the scientists also monitored 112 individuals' digital behavior in several tasks and extracted information on their attention span and multitasking capacity.

The scientists discovered that digital media and technology have taken multitasking to the next level since people have a strong desire to always be connected and to always engage with others online.

Bruce Morton, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario Brain and Mind Institute, says this new attention span pattern is an expected, natural phenomenon:

"Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn't mean that the way our attention actually can function has changed," Maria Khan of The International Business Times reports.

Microsoft's study doesn't stand alone. A study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information and the National Library of Medicine had similar findings. The researchers discovered that people favor dual screening, with 79 percent of the survey respondents saying they use portable devices and watch TV at the same time. More than half the respondents also stated that they check their phone every half hour.

Morton says that different attention allocation doesn't necessarily mean that people's attention has deteriorated:

"Digital technologies dovetail seamlessly into the information processing abilities of our brain."

The study by Microsoft helps marketing and advertising companies better understand digital user behavior and how they consume digital media. Alison Gausby, consumer insights lead at Microsoft Canada, says of users' ability to multitask:

"They were still laughing at the jokes, or when there were auditory cues, such as a tense moment, they would all look up. … It's great news for marketers that multiscreening doesn't reduce the potential impact of marketing."

Fifty-two per cent of young people ages 18 to 24 said the last thing they do before bed is check their phone. Forty-four percent of the respondents said they "[r]eally have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks at work/school."

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