Urban legend has it that the average person’s attention span has gotten shorter and shorter over the years, and is currently less than the attention span of a golfdfish, which allegedly nine seconds.
However, an article in today’s Wall Street Journal calls into question such findings.
First, with regards to the goldfish – Kirsten Adam, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Chicago, checked the scientific literature for goldfish studies. “A few papers came up,” she said, “and none remotely try to measure attention span in goldfish.”
And there’s controversy on the human side as well.
“The concept of an attention span as being a specific maximal duration of time is not a known valid measure,” according to Dr. Edward Vogel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “Such a time measure would vary so much from context to context that it would be fairly useless as a metric of ability.”
Dr. Vogel notes that he has been measuring the attention span of college students for the past 20 years, and that it has been remarkably stable across decades.
This is the same conclusion reached by Michael Posner, a psychologist known for identifying the brain networks underlying attention, and Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and authority on brain metabolism. They say the ability of healthy adults to pay attention hasn’t diminished.
“There is no real evidence that it’s changed since it was first reported in the late 1800s,” Dr. Posner said.
So how did this myth first get started?
The story notes that a division of Microsoft published a 52-page report in 2015 that said the average human attention span had dropped from 12 to eight seconds in just over a decade. The report also offered this disturbing comparison: The average attention span of a goldfish, at nine seconds, was one second longer than the typical human.
But when others tried to look for the evidence to support such a claim, there was really none to come by.
Researchers use a number of behavioral tests to measure such traits as attention span. One test involves briefly showing someone colored squares in succession and asking whether they match.
The average adult can accurately compare sets of three, but most cannot reliably compare sets of six. The results of this and other tests of attention are important because they predict academic success.
According to Dr. Vogel, the 10-minute color-memorization task can predict how well someone will do on the GRE, the SAT or other high-level tasks.
If you’d like to give it a try, the WSJ story has a version of the test embedded into the article (no subscription required), and it takes less than a minute to complete it. Here were my results:
3-square tests: 1 of 1
4-square tests: 1 of 1
5-square tests: 2 of 2
6-square tests: 1 of 1
8-square tests: 0 of 3
I’m not really sure what the results mean, except that it shows I was pretty good at guessing some of the answers, since I was not fully confident with many of my answers. The results also support, in a way, the logic behind why phone numbers were seven digits long (excluding the area code). I recall reading that seven is the upper limit of a person’s memory, and as my results show, once there were eight objects in the test, I didn’t fare too well.
And don’t despair if you aren’t happy with your results. No one really knows what the attention span of a goldfish is anyway.
But if you really want to test your attention span, just go back and read my previous 780 blog posts. My goldfish did so in just one weekend.