Attention Spans Dwindling, Processing Power Increasing. Are We Becoming More Like Our Primal Ancestors?

“[What information consumes is] the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” -Herbert Simon, Nobel winner, Economics (1978)

Think about that for a moment.

Since the advent of movable type heralded the evolution of readily accessible information, our senses have been assaulted with ever-growing, ever-changing sources of information while, in direct correlation, our attention spans have been shrinking.

True…and while I will posit no “alternate truths,” I will share some thinking that, in my opinion, has important implications for marketers—including politicians—and maybe for all of us as we ponder some of the issues.

Let’s be clear: it’s a little embarrassing to think that a goldfish has a longer attention span than most of us do. It would seem, in fact, that while our human attention span, in a continuous downward slope, has dropped below eight seconds over the past 17 years, goldfish have held steady at about nine seconds.

Now, back in the day, my teachers used to berate me with similar statistics, but my recollection is their claim that a gnat could sit longer than I could…So it goes.

Back to truths.

Should we be ashamed because of that little goldfish? Should I be embarrassed because of that gnat? Are we really losing it—or is there perhaps something else at play here that needs to be understood?

The social media sites tell us that people interact in seconds and fractions of that (according to a Millward Brown Brand Lift Insights study from 2015, 55% of all mobile sessions last less than 30 seconds). Video played on those sites can actually be understood and contextualized in as little as three seconds, or less.

Do you believe that? And let’s be clear: someone is paying precious money every time you scroll and three seconds of video run on your screen.

According to one viewpoint from NYU’s Applied Psychology department, we’re already on the road to perdition:

The short-attention-span issue is linked to the idea that social networking encourages the reward center of the brain to signal as it does with drug use, due to the instantly gratifying nature of these simulated interactions. Greenfield proclaims that the rapidly occurring interchanges present in these websites will accustom the brain to operate on these unrealistic timescales. As a result, when one finds that responses are not immediately forthcoming, Greenfield suggests that behaviors of Attention Deficit Disorder will become prevalent in adolescents, a diagnosis on the rise for years (Wintour, 2009).

As I mentioned, my teachers credited me with being ahead of this curve.

Back in 1968 (honest!), I became obsessed with the notion of rapid-fire information and the absorption of said information by our brains.

OK—full disclosure—I was obsessed with a TV show called The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Tame by today’s standards (with an occasional zing that would make it relevant even now), but to me it was radical revolution.

One Sunday night, they broadcast a short video called Classical Gas—3,000 Years of Art set to a musical composition by Mason Williams. Williams states:

The short film was a collection of approximately 2500 classical works of art, mostly paintings, that flashed by in three minutes. Each image lasted only two film frames, so one saw twelve images a second! At the end of the film the viewer was pronounced “cultural” since they had just had “3000 years of art indelibly etched in their brains in 3 minutes!

It blew my mind and has stayed with me ever since. Watch and listen.

Today we would call this “digital content” and no doubt it would be touted as a mash-up of visual art and music…yadda, yadda, yadda. But, to me it was sheer genius and I have never forgotten it.

My point being that it is amazing what the human brain can absorb.

I then started thinking about early humans and the amount of data and information they must have had to process in milliseconds just to stay alive, allowing us to ponder today whether Facebook is accelerating ADD in our species.

Or think and read about infants and how they manage the assimilation of new experiences that crash over them from the moment they are born. Amber Case, cyberanthropologist and CEO of Geoloqi, agrees:

The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival. Today and in the future it will not be as important to internalize information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesize them, and make rapid decisions.

“Today and in the future?” How about as far back as we go? Maybe we’re returning to a more primal state or, better, resurfacing the primal skills that we lost or left dormant.

Or as J. Bruce Morton at Western University in London, Canada puts it:

…there’s no evidence technology is making us worse at concentrating…Instead, it has just become so well designed and intuitive that it takes advantage of our innate ability to think of several things at the same time.

One of his colleagues adds:

There is good evidence that a wandering mind is an evolved trait that helps us to think about and plan for the future—something that also fosters a uniquely human creativity.

And as Microsoft reports:

The good news: tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention.

Bottom line:

We live in an age when the intersection of content and context has never been more important, yet we confuse mobile and mobility; device and desire; data and deeds.

Yes, as we scroll down a social feed, we’re in Classical Gas mode—much like our prehistoric ancestors once were—absorbing what we need to use as we need it. But we can also binge-watch Netflix for hours and sit through ever-longer movies and even read big books if they’re good.

Or as Kevin Spacey puts it, “If someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span?”

The issue to me, then, is not our attention spans or lack of them—it would seem that we have evolved, or, maybe better said, that we are reevolving to shift our attention gears as we find the need to, based on activity and substance, on context and content.

For marketers, the problem has been best stated by the Harvard Business Review:

What cost has risen the most dramatically for U.S. businesses in the last 25 years? It’s not the cost of health care or taxes, or even executive compensation. It’s advertising, more precisely the cost of commanding consumer attention, which by my calculation has seen a staggering seven- to nine-fold increase in real terms since 1990.

When demand outpaces supply, prices rise. Marketers’ demand for consumers’ attention has grown dramatically in recent years with the proliferation of new brands and products (remember when there was only one variety of Oreo?). The supply of attention, however, can (by and large) only grow with population growth. At the same time, consumers have been armed with all sorts of tools to avoid paying attention to advertisements, including DVRs, ad blockers, and mobile devices that allow them to shift their attention to content of their choosing.

And by marketers I mean all of us…because, while the monetary cost is unique to them, the rest of us are paying increasingly high emotional and relationship costs if we can’t command the attention of or give our attention to the people we need.

As for me…to hell with those teachers…and I have a great hope for the world…listen:

“I guess I have a short attention span! I’m interested in new worlds, new universes, new challenges.”  -Alfonso Cuaron

And there you have it.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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