Our Disappearing Attention Spans

Last week, Mediapost Editor in Chief Joe Mandese mused about our declining attention spans. He wrote, 

“while in the past, the most common addictive analogy might have been opiates — as in an insatiable desire to want more — these days [consumers] seem more like speed freaks looking for the next fix.”

Mandese cited a couple of recent studies, saying that more than half of mobile users tend to abandon any website that takes longer than three seconds to load. That

“has huge implications for the entire media ecosystem — even TV and video — because consumers increasingly are accessing all forms of content and commerce via their mobile devices.”

The question that begs to be asked here is, “Is a short attention span a bad thing?” The famous comparison is that we are now more easily distracted than a goldfish. But does a shorter attention span negatively impact us, or is it just our brain changing to be a better fit with our environment?

Academics have been debating the impact of technology on our ability to cognitively process things for some time. Journalist Nicholas Carr sounded the warning in his 2010 book, “The Shallows,” where he wrote, 

” (Our brains are) very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.”

Certainly, Carr is right about the plasticity of our brains. It’s one of the most advantageous features about them. But is our digital environment forever pushing our brains to the shallow end of the pool? Well, it depends. Context is important. One of the biggest factors in determining how we process the information we’re seeing is the device where we’re seeing it.

Back in 2010, Microsoft did a large-scale ethnographic study on how people searched for information on different devices. The researchers found those behaviors differed greatly depending on the platform being used and the intent of the searcher. They found three main categories of search behaviors:

  • Missions are looking for one specific answer (for example, an address or phone number) and often happen on a mobile device.
  • Excavations are widespread searches that need to combine different types of information (for example, researching an upcoming trip or major purchase). They are usually launched on a desktop.
  • Finally, there are Explorations: searching for novelty, often to pass the time. These can happen on all types of devices and can often progress through different devices as the exploration evolves. The initial search may be launched on a mobile device, but as the user gets deeper into the exploration, she may switch to a desktop.

The important thing about this research was that it showed our information-seeking behaviors are very tied to intent, which in turn determines the device used. So, at a surface level, we shouldn’t be too quick to extrapolate behaviors seen on mobile devices with certain intents to other platforms or other intents. We’re very good at matching a search strategy to the strengths and weaknesses of the device we’re using.

But at a deeper level, if Carr is right (and I believe he is) about our constant split-second scanning of information to find items of interest making permanent changes in our brains, what are the implications of this?

For such a fundamentally important question, there is a small but rapidly growing body of academic research that has tried to answer it. To add to the murkiness, many of the studies done contradict each other. The best summary I could find of academia’s quest to determine if “the Internet is making us stupid” was a 2015 article in academic journal The Neuroscientist.

The authors sum up by essentially saying both “yes” — and “no.” We are getting better at quickly filtering through reams of information. We are spending fewer cognitive resource memorizing things we know we can easily find online, which theoretically leaves those resources free for other purposes. Finally, for this post, I will steer away from commenting on multitasking, because the academic jury is still very much out on that one.

But the authors also say that 

“we are shifting towards a shallow mode of learning characterized by quick scanning, reduced contemplation and memory consolidation.”

The fact is, we are spending more and more of our time scanning and clicking. There are inherent benefits to us in learning how to do that faster and more efficiently. The human brain is built to adapt and become better at the things we do all the time. But there is a price to be paid. The brain will also become less capable of doing the things we don’t do as much anymore. As the authors said, this includes actually taking the time to think.

So, in answer to the question “Is the Internet making us stupid?,” I would say no. We are just becoming smart in a different way.

But I would also say the Internet is making us less thoughtful. And that brings up a rather worrying prospect.

As I’ve said many times before, the brain thinks both fast and slow. The fast loop is brutally efficient. It is built to get stuff done in a split second, without having to think about it. Because of this, the fast loop has to be driven by what we already know or think we know. Our “fast” behaviors are necessarily bounded by the beliefs we already hold. It’s this fast loop that’s in control when we’re scanning and clicking our way through our digital environments.

But it’s the slow loop that allows us to extend our thoughts beyond our beliefs. This is where we’ll find our “open minds,” if we have such a thing. Here, we can challenge our beliefs and, if presented with enough evidence to the contrary, willingly break them down and rebuild them to update our understanding of the world. In the sense-making loop, this is called reframing.

The more time we spend “thinking fast” at the expense of “thinking slow,” the more we will become prisoners to our existing beliefs. We will be less able to consolidate and consider information that lies beyond those boundaries. We will spend more time “parsing” and less time “pondering.” As we do so, our brains will shift and change accordingly.

Ironically, our minds will change in such a way to make it exceedingly difficult to change our minds.

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