Attention spans are widely misapplied, misused, and misunderstood. The classic attention span research established that college students could pay attention for about 21-22 minutes. At minute 22, their brains would suddenly turn to jello, leak out of their heads, and disappear into their uncomfortable lecture-hall chairs, never to return. But other studies have found that attention spans vary from 20 minutes to 42 minutes among children ages 10 – 14. Are college students really that much more scattered-brained than their younger siblings? My experience with university-level teaching would suggest the opposite.
More recently, Microsoft sponsored a study that apparently determined that our attention spans were down to eight seconds or less. In this way, we compared unfavorably to goldfish who clock in at eight seconds, or perhaps more. The Incredible Shrinking Attention Span generated a good deal of handwringing and angst, not to mention marketing copy and speeches designed to keep this blink-of-an-eye attention span for longer than now thought possible.
Here’s the thing about the above: It’s all inaccurate. The eight-second study was not about attention spans but rather about how long people tended to look at websites while browsing the web. An interesting factoid, but not about attention spans.
And attention spans, once lost, don’t go to Mars, never to return, unless you get really, really lucky and the International Space Force commissions a rocket to rescue you. Rather, they need 30 seconds or less to refresh themselves and they are back, strong as ever, ready to raise your consciousness still further hour after hour.
A quick stretch, a chance to ask questions, something new to look at, many quick and easy pivots in content can refresh the attention span.
Attention spans also depend on the nature of the material those brains are attempting to absorb. Most people can sit spellbound through a two-hour thriller movie, but struggle to read more than a handful of pages of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Huh. Who knew?
Online, attention spans do seem to have become shorter—seven to 10 minutes seems about right—but you should consider the jury out on attention span lengths for now, at least until more research is done, and we nail that pesky little factoid down for good. By then, it will be shorter, anyway.
But the big question remains: What about the pandemic and all this time we’ve spent online? Have those twin changes in our daily habits affected our attention spans, most likely for the worse?
The quick answer is ‘No.' What has changed is not our attention spans, but our ability to engage with new ideas. We’re stressed-out and information-overloaded, and that’s not changing any time soon. Rather, the pandemic accelerated that state of affairs. It’s harder to get our attention in the first place. Stress will do that to you. On the other hand, once you get our attention, we’ll binge-watch “The Crown” with the best of them.
Here’s an analogy for how it works. Imagine you had a budget of $10 per day to spend on food and toiletries. You’d probably run through it every day, and earlier rather than later. It would make sense to spend it in chunks so that you could regularly afford to buy bigger things, rather than dribble it all away on 50-cent items. Some days you might not buy food at all—perhaps buying a big tub of shampoo one day and Oreos the next day (don’t judge me).
Imagine if you had that same $10 to spend to feed and clean two people. How much harder would it seem to make the money go the distance.
If you are in the unenviable position right now of trying to hold and capture the attention spans of one group or another, good luck. Tell stories, change things up every 10 minutes or so, and understand that it’s hard to get those nervous, overloaded pandemic minds to come to roost long enough to see your great stuff. Be compassionate and pay attention to your storytelling craft. What still grabs and holds people is powerful stories on ancient themes like identity, change, and revenge.
Our brains still work. They’re just stressed out.
Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.