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Myth-busting: ”Today’s adults have a shorter attention span than a goldfish” 

Friday, August 12, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

attention-spanFALSE! Alas, even though Microsoft has popularized this notion of a shrinking attention span—it is simply not true. Or at least, there is no proof it is true. And the study the falsehood was based on was not even looking at attention span—it was looking at multi-tasking while browsing the web. To add insult to injury for the authors (who actually are academics), they do not even use the word goldfish in their article. Academics who’ve been misquoted or misinterpreted by the media are shaking their heads around the globe. This distorting of research by the popular press for the sake of sensational stories isn’t new, but for those who do the work, it is pretty disturbing. Reporters often do little back-checking with the geeks that make the world go ‘round, because it’s hard, and it often takes the edge out of a catchy story. Once the first misinterpretation is published, the skewed reports drift farther and farther from the research they purportedly rely on. Alas…

Okay. So what happened here? Microsoft apparently commissioned a 2015 non-peer-reviewed study to examine how internet browsing had changed over time—that is, how long do surfers look at a page prior to moving on? Then it was misinterpreted (really misinterpreted) with spurious comparison information added about how adult attention spans were shrinking—an assertion unsupported and unaddressed even by the Microsoft study. This misinformation was picked up by the New York Times and Time Magazine as well as numerous other mainstream media sites. Each site represented the data as a scientific truth stemming from a paper commissioned by Microsoft. The only problem was, it wasn’t true.

The table following is another example of how the work was misinterpreted—it misrepresents the human (and goldfish) attention span as the real focus of the paper, which could barely be farther from the truth. The last half of the below table (Internet Browsing Statistics) is actually taken from the article Microsoft commissioned to look at how browsing patterns on the internet have changed over time. The top half however (Attention Span Statistics) is not and is totally unrelated to the study they commissioned. And, none of it has been validated or otherwise proved to mean anything at all.

Microsoft study

(If you have trouble reading this table, here is the original source.)

You can find the text of the complete article commissioned by Microsoft here. Open it as a pdf file and search it for “goldfish”. You won’t find it. Nada. The study was not designed to look at the human attention span nor was it designed to compare human attention spans to that of a goldfish. It was designed to look at how advances in web technology had changed how we surf the web. Because, Microsoft wants to figure out how to make the most out of web surfing.

We are fortunate to have fact-checkers on the web — particularly when it comes to topics like data visualization. PolicyViz does a thorough job of debunking this myth as does a writer posting on  LinkedIn. They both want everyone to STOP comparing people to goldfish! We would concur. We would also love to see people using their common sense and questioning sensational claims–“the average attention span of a goldfish”? Really? Or, what is the significance of any of those memory lapse statistics? Has that always been the case? Is it different? Why should we care?

From a litigation advocacy perspective, there are two key lessons here: First, pay no attention to comparisons of your jurors to goldfish. Instead use things like chunking your information into 10 minute segments—that factoid is actually supported by research on learning and not just drummed up by a marketing representative. If jurors do not pay attention, it likely isn’t their declining attention spans, but rather that your presentation did not speak to their values, attitudes and beliefs. Test your presentations pretrial and make sure real people pay attention and understand.

And second, be very aware of how easily seduced people are by unproven, but juicy, factoids based on data that is unproven or false, just because it is amusing or it seems to support some preexisting but uninformed suspicion. Cleverness often sells.

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