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A shorter attention span than a goldfish

A goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds. A popular study claims that the average adult attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013

Has the technology of the moment stolen your focus?

That is the question being posed by bestselling author Johann Hari in his new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again.

The idea that the human attention span is decreasing is not new.

A quick Google search will confirm that one popular study has concluded that the average adult attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013.

The question is – does this matter?

Well, as always, I suppose it depends on your perspective. But you might be interested to learn that the same study also concluded that the average goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

Yes, you read that correctly. It has been widely reported that many people currently have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.

Is this actually true?

Upon closer examination, it appears that BBC News asked the same question and concluded that the original source of this data may well be a bit “fishy”. (But that in itself actually just furthers my case as it proves that a significant number of people had too short an attention span to check the facts!)

The odd thing is that humans arrive in this world with blurred vision and spend the first few weeks of life simply learning how to focus on and grab hold of an object which in turn helps to develop our attention span.

When we subsequently give a tablet or similar digital device to a child just as soon as they are able to sit up straight, we might assume therefore that we are encouraging them to continue to develop their attention span by playing digital games, but this might not be the case.

Although we have been conditioned to believe that a lack of ability to focus is somehow a personal failing; Hari believes this assumption is entirely false. He asserts that “our focus has been [intentionally] stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit”.

Granted, you could argue this statement either way, but consider how often you are offered a reward or incentive online for clicking on a link or viewing a commercial.

Yes, you receive some sort of benefit in the form of a promotional code, or access to the next level of the game you are playing on your phone, but the creator of the advertisement is receiving data regarding your digital-use habits (which can have a monetary value if sold) and they often also receive direct compensation when you click on a desired link. In consequence, they use every subliminal means that they can to divert your attention from whatever you are presently doing to instead pay attention to whatever it is that they are promoting.

These tactics can include (but are by no means limited to) the use of specific colours, images, bells, loud music, pop-up windows, misdirecting links and looping you back to the start if you attempt to close the ad.

If you doubt this, just turn on Windows notifications for 48 hours on your PC and see how many non-essential non-work-related alerts, notifications, announcements, bells and badges you receive (or conversely, if you have never turned it off, turn it off for 48 hours and see what happens).

So how can you tell if your attention span is actually at risk?

Let’s just say that if you have struggled to read this one article without checking your watch or your phone, or receiving an unnecessary alert regarding some social media post that you could not care less about, you may well have a problem.

How often do we criticise our kids for not having an attention span to our liking? More times than we think to be honest. But attention span isn’t a kiddie thing – it really does apply to every one of us, regardless of age or education or even level of interest.

So, the more interesting question is, are you content to be a sheep, or are you willing to do what it takes to ensure you have a greater attention span than a goldfish?

Robin Trimingham is the managing director of The Olderhood Group Ltd and a business consultant, journalist, podcaster and thought leader in the fields of life transition and change management. Connect with Robin at https://bit.ly/3nSMlvc or robin@olderhood.com

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Published February 15, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated February 10, 2022 at 5:02 pm)

A shorter attention span than a goldfish

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