Decreasing human attention spans: fake news?

And why a long article like this one won’t hold your attention beyond the first few lines.

Before you get distracted by the buzz of notifications from your smartphone or the thought of delectable vada paos at Kaki’s, it is imperative that I capture every ounce of your attention within seconds. In not doing so, I shall have lost the readership of most millennials who, according to Time magazine, the Telegraph, and the New York Times, have an 8-second attention span. A news article revolving around the headline, ‘Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones,’ recently swept the internet. The article claimed that Goldfish have a 9-second attention span, whereas humans have merely 8. If that does not sound adequately absurd, let me inform you of what (again, according to the news-media mentioned above) will now grab your attention far more firmly – cat gifs on Buzzfeed.

This amusing comparison between humanity and fish first began when a 2015 study done by Microsoft Canada on its consumers was brought to light. In this study, 2000 Canadians were surveyed, and the brain activity of 112 of them was monitored as they carried out various tasks. However, what attracted every aforementioned news-media writer’s attention was the metric of our diminishing attention. Surprisingly, upon digging deeper into this study, it is revealed that there is no explicit mention of the 8-second figure being a conclusion of the Microsoft study. It was, in fact, a reference from a different source, namely ‘Statistic Brain.’ If one wished to dig even deeper, they will discover that there is no evidence of any record of a research that backs this data by Statistic Brain. So, which is it? Is this just another example of a baseless rumor becoming a mainstream news article, or are we really sinking lower than Goldfish?

Both of these speculations can be considered true. As to why such unfounded, fake articles gain immense popularity and traction on the internet, limited attention spans can be blamed. Let us examine a recent case where CNN, the popular news channel, was reported to have broadcasted 30 minutes of pornography to its United States viewers. It was covered on the front page of Reddit.com, FOX News, The Independent, The New York Post, and Daily Mail. It would have been quite the controversial piece of news if the incident had ever actually happened. Astonishingly, the entire article spurred from the imagination of one random twitter user, who tweeted out something related to CNN broadcasting porn. Within two days, as CNN helplessly tried to figure out what went wrong, the news had already been consumed by over 20 million people online. Moreover, when the New York Post, a company which published an article related to this topic, slowly realized that it was fake, they conveniently changed the title from ‘CNN accidentally airs 30 minutes of pornography’ to ‘CNN denies airing 30 minutes of pornography.’ The reason behind this subtle change – the news-media would still earn revenue through their websites, no matter what the titles of their articles are, as long as these articles drive in enough traffic.

What is even more interesting to note is that such news articles will thrive, no matter what their content revolves around, on their safe haven called the internet. As the density of information online exponentially increases with every passing day, including the much-loved Buzzfeed quizzes and GIFs, the average number of articles reaching the consumer also increases. In theory, the quality of the content of each article should prevail over other factors, but the importance of quality changes dramatically as attention spans decline and information density increases. Xiaoyan Qiu, a researcher at Shanghai Institute of Technology, found that information quality makes minimal difference when it comes to predicting the popularity of content. Bad spreads the same as good. This spread is exacerbated by the strategies of mainstream media to capitalize on one’s seemingly short attention span. Ever wondered why Buzzfeed incorporates those innumerable GIFs into its articles? It is because looking at colorful, moving images induces a hit of feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, helping Buzzfeed shatter the prophesized 8-second rule and grab our complete attention.

The critical question still remains unanswered – are our attention spans being affected by technology? According to Dr. Gemma Briggs, how we contribute our attention to different tasks predominantly depends on what we bring to that situation. She also comments that we have a wealth of information in our heads relating to what normally happens in given situations, which helps us form expectations. These expectations and our experiences directly mould what we see and how we perceive information in any given time. Therefore, media is getting better at trying to grab our attention, rather than our attention spans being wrongly accused of dwindling. On top of that, media may be entertaining us with unsupported information, under the premise that they make revenue regardless of the content.

There is yet another interesting observation concerning the ‘fake’ attention statistic. Ironically, there is no solid evidence that suggests that goldfish, or any fish for that matter, have short attention spans. On the other hand, according to Prof. Felicity Huntingford, who has spent half a century studying fish behavior, “Goldfish can perform all the kinds of learning that have been described for mammals and birds.” Doesn’t this imply that there wasn’t a single ounce of truth in that headline? Were you not paying attention?


Author: Aayush Agarwal

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