What is it with our attention spans anyway?

3 min read
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What's happening to our attention spans? It's a question that's provoked much debate, with some suggesting they're shrinking, while others debunk this as a myth. We decided to delve a little deeper.

A 2022 survey by the Policy Institute and Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London revealed that UK adults vastly underestimate their phone-checking habits. They believe they check their phones 25 times a day on average, but studies suggest the actual figure is as high as 80 times a day. Half admit to occasionally being unable to resist checking their smartphones when they should be focusing elsewhere, a struggle that affects both middle-aged and young people.

However, it's important to clarify that this does not necessarily indicate a shortening attention span. As Dr Briggs pointed out, "how we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation."

Professor Marion Thain, Director of the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London, reminds us that blaming new technologies for distraction isn't a new trend. She notes, “we know from work being done at the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s that new technologies have been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for causing crises of distraction long before the digital age.”

Co-Director of the Centre, Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, emphasises that although technology has increased distractions and potentially reduced our willingness to engage in lengthy tasks, it remains untested whether this has a genuine impact on our underlying ability to concentrate.

Interestingly, the modern information environment might even suit those with specific attention styles, such as individuals with ADHD. Defining 'normal' attention is a challenge, and different ways of concentration might give certain individuals an edge in this era of techno-cultural change.

Journalist Johann Hari, writing for The Guardian, suggests that the problem isn't that we've lost the ability to focus, but rather that our focus is being stolen. He refers to studies showing that college students only focus on a single task for 65 seconds on average, and office workers for about three minutes. According to Hari, this doesn't reflect a lack of willpower, but rather the result of continual distractions.

As per Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, our brains can only generate one or two thoughts at a time in our conscious mind. Despite this, the average teenager believes they can follow six forms of media simultaneously. Miller suggests that what people perceive as multitasking is, in fact, a rapid switching between tasks, each switch incurring a cognitive cost that results in reduced performance.

So what's the truth about our attention spans?

While it's clear that our modern, digital environment poses continual distractions that can interrupt focus, there's no solid evidence to suggest that our actual attention spans are shrinking. Instead, it appears that the way we apply our attention is evolving, as we adapt to an environment in which we're frequently required to switch between tasks.

The key takeaway for our clients is not to mistake distraction for a lack of focus. By understanding the dynamic nature of attention in the digital age, we can better navigate this landscape, creating strategies that acknowledge our audience's multitasking habits and designing content that captivates and engages, even amidst the whirlwind of digital distractions.

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