Attention And The 8-Second Attention Span

Attention And The 8-Second Attention Span
Summary: There is a popular belief that the human attention span has shrunk because of the expanding uses of technology. Some Learning and Development professionals are saying instruction must adapt to this much-lowered attention span. Here’s the problem: The evidence for a lowered attention span is fiction. In this article, I’ll discuss the fictional “research”. Then we’ll discuss what attention is and how it relates to organizational learning.

Debunking The 8-Second Attention Span

In 2015, Microsoft published a study with an infographic that shows our attention span at 12 seconds in the year 2000 and 8 seconds in 2013. It also shows the attention span of a goldfish at 9 seconds. (?) They attribute these numbers to Statistic Brain.

I searched for these numbers on Statistic Brain and they cite a 2008 study by Weinreich, Obendorf, Herder, and Mayer which explores the results of a web browsing study. They also cite information from "National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press”.

The Weinreich, Obendorf, Herder, and Mayer study does not cite the listed statistics. An article in Policy Viz tracked the second source and found no relevant data. So… where do these numbers come from?

The numbers appear to be fiction! That would seem bizarre, except it’s not the first time a series of numbers needed to be debunked (We remember 10% of what we read 20% of what we hear…). That infographic got a lot of attention from news outlets. Time Magazine, USA Today, The New York Times, and Canada’s National Post (and others) all wrote about the 8-second attention span without giving much thought to whether it made sense. And speakers and marketers still cite these fictional numbers to justify your need to buy their help and solutions. What’s even more bizarre is that the Microsoft study wasn’t really about attention span. It was about helping advertisers get eyeballs.

Other research shows support for a variable attention span far longer than 8 seconds and dependent on many factors (as we would expect). Think about your own attention span. Can you pay attention for 2 hours? When? (Obvious answer: Watching a movie.) When can you pay attention for half an hour or more? Often. Examples: Talking to friends, playing games on your phone, reading, etc.

For example, Wilson and Korn did a literature review (an analysis of what the research says about a specific topic) and discussed the many flaws in much of the research on attention span during lectures. They said that one of the few things that we can say is that attention span varies and it was impossible to offer a specific estimate for a how long people can pay attention. (My reaction: Duh.)

The teeny tiny attention argument seems to be part of a larger digital native argument, which says that technology has changed how younger people learn so we much teach them differently. Also fiction. I discussed the problems with this argument in another article.

What Is Attention?

We know that attention is critical for learning. I’ve discussed memory in previous articles and memory and attention are related. We can’t remember or process information that we don’t attend to. Some say attention is the ability to focus on one thing and not become distracted by other things in the environment. But that’s just one a part of attention.

The Microsoft study cited Sohlberg and Mateer’s Attention Model, which Sohlberg and Mateer developed for clinical use (brain damage, ADD, etc.). The model has 5 levels:

Level Description
1. Focused Attention

(easiest level)

Response to external stimuli.

Example: Reacting when touched.

2. Sustained Attention Ongoing focus to carry out repetitive tasks.

Example: Remembering instructions and carrying them out when needed.

3. Selective Attention Staying focused while distractions are present.

Example: Performing tasks while there are distractions, such as noise and movement.

4. Alternating Attention Shifting focus between tasks that need different skills.

Example: Alternating between asking questions, listening for the answers, and typing in facts on a form

5. Divided Attention

(most difficult level)

Responding simultaneously to multiple tasks. (May be rapid switching of alternating attention.)

Example: Talking on the phone while sending an email.

Table 1. Sohlberg and Mateer Attention Model (adapted from Sohlberg & Mateer reference).

Our brain also does a lot of preprocessing that we are unaware of. This is where the brain is deciding if there is anything needing attention. The world around us bombards us with stimuli that could overwhelm us on an ongoing basis. So, our brain must be able to filter most of this out so we are not overloaded. We cannot learn or react while overloaded.

The brain decides we need to pay attention primarily when there is something new or changing. When nothing has changed and things are normal, it tends to coast on autopilot. Most of us have had the experience of driving somewhere and not remembering actually getting there.

In addition to levels of attention, Chun, Golumb, and Turk-Browne describe 2 types of attention: External and internal.

  1. External attention refers to how we select and process information through our senses from the world.
  2. Internal attention refers to how we select and process information from inside, such as memory and feelings.

Learning and application of what we learn involves both types of attention. For example, in effective learning environments, we are processing information from outside (for example, what someone is saying and images we see) using working memory and linking what we are processing to information we are processing from the inside (including thoughts, feelings, and what we already know). When we are remembering what we learned to apply it, we need to retrieve information from long-term memory and use that while handling new information from the environment.

So… What?

Attention is complex. There is no set attention span. So, there’s no need to design for a known tiny attention span. But there is a need to gain and keep attention during learning because there are internal and external things competing for attention all the time.

We can use Sohlberg and Mateer’s levels of attention to analyze what level of attention a worker needs for various job tasks. As the attentional levels get more complex, we can consider how it might be possible to support memory and attention to make the work less difficult.

In a previous article, I discussed how we need to analyze what is causing various performance problems rather than assuming that training will solve all problems. When analyzing processes where there are less-than-desirable outcomes, we can look for attentional difficulties. For example, are we expecting people to do many things at once (level 5) or do things in situations where there are a lot of distractions (level 3)? Can situations that cause attention problems be improved?

Next month, I’ll follow up on this article by discussing a situation where technology is problematically impacting attention. I’ll also discuss what designing for attention looks like. If you have specific questions, please post them as your questions impact what I write about.