The great goldfish attention span myth – and why it’s killing content marketing

Some stats make great presentation fodder – it’s just a pity they’re completely untrue

October 4, 2016

By the time the Festival of Marketing is over, you and I will have lost count of the number of times we’re told we have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. You’ll have heard whole theories of how you should plan and execute content marketing to allow for the fact that research proves humans can only concentrate for eight seconds – whereas our bowl-inhabiting, orange-coloured friends can manage nine.

Now, before we go any further. I’d like you to help me conduct a short scientific experiment of my own: when was the last time that you succeeded in focusing on something for eight seconds or more? I bet you have to go all the way back to maybe three minutes ago. That’s right, you’ll have concentrated for vastly longer than eight seconds countless times today. If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you’ve done it again. Congratulations! Clearly you’re exceptional, because as marketers have been telling themselves for the last 18 months – research proves human beings only have an attention span of eight seconds.

Except that research actually shows nothing of the sort. In fact the only thing this particular research insight shows is that marketers probably care less than goldfish about where their stats come from.

Origins of the eight-second attention span myth
If you put them on the spot, most people will tell you that we know our attention span is less than goldfish because of research conducted by Microsoft in Canada in 2015. Those people are all wrong – but don't blame them. Countless respectable newspapers and magazines from The Daily Telegraph to TIME all reported that Microsoft had discovered that our attention span was now less than that of fish. They were all wrong too.

The Microsoft research certainly exists. It included impressive-sounding quantitative surveys and neurological studies – and the report does include an Infographic that shows human attention spans ‘dwindling’ from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013, below the nine-second average attention span of a goldfish. The only problem is – that infographic wasn’t actually based on findings from Microsoft’s own research. It’s sourced to something called Statistics Brain. When you go to the Statistics Brain website, it offers a range of different sources for these and other stats. None of them seem to mention the attention spans of human beings or goldfish. When you look at it in any level of detail, the stat that has dominated a huge amount of marketing discussion since May 2015 isn’t based on any recognisable research at all. Jonathan Schwabish of the website policyviz conducted his own investigation (more in-depth than mine) and didn’t find anything either.

So the ‘fact’ that we have a lower attention span than goldfish isn’t a fact at all. But what do we actually know about what’s happening to our attention and what marketers should do about it? This is where the whole goldfish view of human attention starts to look even shakier.

Human attention is changing – but it’s certainly not diminishing
In the actual Microsoft research that the eight-second stat doesn’t actually come from, there are lots of interesting findings about how our attention is evolving. None of these findings suggest for even one moment that we should be planning our marketing around an eight-second attention span. In fact, the Microsoft research never once mentions the magic eight-second number at all. It doesn't mention goldfish either.

“Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again”

That was how Alyson Gausby, Consumer Insights Lead at Microsoft Canada summed up the overall findings of the research. And she’s right.

Guess what – we don’t spend ages on pointless tasks
The research did find that spending a lot of time multi-screening or using social media reduces the likelihood of you focusing on one task for a prolonged period of time – provided that task is very repetitive and boring. The task they used in this test was identifying and responding to patterns of letters – and guess what, after you’d been doing this for a while, you desperately want to find something else to think about. If your marketing strategy relies on getting social media-savvy early adopters to do something completely pointless for long periods of time without thinking of anything else, then this might be a problem for you. If it’s not, then we can safely move on.

How human attention is becoming more intensive – and more efficient
Whilst subjecting people to mind-numbing tasks, the research discovered that people who spent more time with digital media actually used their attention in very different ways. All of these ways were more intensive, more efficient and extracted more information more quickly. As the report puts it “tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention.” In other words, changes to our attention mean we can now process more information, not less.

That’s not all. Not only is our attention getting better at processing more information, it’s also becoming better at alternating between different things without compromising any of them. In other words, we can easily focus on more than one thing at once. And all these new found attention-related skills are dedicated to achieving one primary objective: finding the content that’s worth paying attention to.

The overriding conclusion of the science on this is pretty clear: our attention isn’t diminishing; it’s becoming more demanding. It processes information increasingly intensively – and it’s almost always hungry for more. The neuro-scientific driver of this is the chemical dopamine, which makes us feel good and is released every time we do something rewarding. When we find something interesting, we get a dopamine hit. When we spend time reading or watching something dull and pointless, we don’t.

How the goldfish myth damages marketing
The problem for marketers is that, if you’re attempting to simplify and compress all content down to fit the attention span of a goldfish, then you are working against the dopamine – not with it. Those intensive, aggressive human attention spans are nowhere near satisfied with eight-seconds worth of ideas or content. They want more. Yes you have to communicate to them why your content matters, what it’s purpose is, and that there’s something in there worth paying attention to. However it’s even more important to make sure that the content itself is substantial, rewarding and keeps giving them reasons to pay attention. The human brain doesn’t care how much content it has to consume – it can do that more efficiently than ever. It cares about whether that content is worth consuming or not.

So there you have it: human beings don’t have a shorter attention span than goldfish – and if our attention is changing, it’s changing in ways that makes it more intense, more demanding and more hungry for information, not less. If you’ve been planning your content marketing approach around appealing to goldfish then I’m afraid you’ve been had. Your audience aren’t goldfish. I think, deep down, you knew that all along.