According to some research, the average human attention span is now eight seconds, less than that of the goldfish with nine. But, asks Faris Yakob, can this possibly be true or does it simply suit companies and marketers to say so?

It will take the average person three minutes to read this column. Sadly, this means that none of you will get past the first paragraph unless I explode some linguistic pyrotechnics or establish a nominally contrarian point of view because, as everyone knows, the average human attention span is now eight seconds, less than that of the goldfish with nine.

When the disparity between the normative duration of your focus and the amount required to read a few hundred words is pointed out, doesn’t that give you pause? Enough to keep reading?

In 2015, the consumer insight team at Microsoft Canada released a report called Attention Spans which included the shocking statistic of our shrivelled skill. This became the headline in coverage all over the world, from The Guardian to The New York Times. It continues to worm its way into innumerable agency and media company presentations. It’s a striking image, appending something that feels true to something we think we all know, bolstered by association to a reputable source. It is also a case study for how fake news spreads in the advertising industry because it is false in every conceivable way.

The Microsoft report was based on studying the brain activity of 112 people, but the headline was not derived from that research. It is sourced to a company called Statistic Brain. Upon visiting the site, it appears to be a research company. A chart with the fishy fact appears there. A reverse image search led me to the source of the claim, a software manual called Building Information Modeling and Construction Management. Here the chart is sourced to the National Center for Biotechnology Information and US Library of Medicine but when asked, both denied any knowledge of research that supports it.

The truth? This ‘goldfish fact’ was entirely fabricated.

The comparison doesn’t even make sense. First of all, you think you know that a goldfish has a short attention span, but think carefully – don’t you mean you think goldfish have an eight-second memory? The factoid adapts that piece of folk knowledge to suit the persuasive purpose.

It can do that because it turns out that goldfish do not have short memories. Quite the contrary. There are hundreds of studies on goldfish learning. They are “a model system for studying the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory” according to Professor Felicity Huntingford at the University of Glasgow. I suspect we all wanted to believe they have no memories in order to assuage the guilt of putting them in tiny glass bowls to watch them swim in endless circles. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, but if they don’t remember one circumnavigation to the next, what’s the harm? Thus, we can reassure ourselves we are good people and go about our day.

We want to believe certain things more than others. Things that put us in good light or help us make money, or both. “That’s why I can’t concentrate!” we thought. “It’s not that we are distracted by the innumerable options of modern media, it’s that our attention spans have been eroded.” What do we think we are even saying? Scientists don’t recognise the idea of an ‘attention span’. How much attention we apply to something is task-dependent. It’s a psychological faculty evolved over millions of years, but it’s changed dramatically in ten? If it were getting shorter, why are films getting longer? How do surgeons or video gamers manage?

The media-industrial complex has a vested interest in this idea. Digital advertising units are considered meaningful with a few seconds of exposure, six-second ads are de rigueur. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute recently claimed “short-form advertising punches above its modest duration when it comes to effectiveness” comparing seven-second ads to longer formats – but this is a function of measurement, since six-second ads are mostly logo.

I recently saw a speaker from one of the world’s largest digital media companies claim, without substantiation, that on mobile our attention spans have decreased once again. We can now only muster two seconds for an ad, they maintained, which borders on the subliminal. It turns out that’s because that’s how much they get on average in the stream – it has nothing to do with the audience or effective brand communication.

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