If you’ve ever found it hard to concentrate on one thing without stopping to check your emails or post to social media, you’re not alone. The average human attention span – how long we can concentrate effectively on a single task – was recently reported by Microsoft to have dropped below the level attributed to goldfish.
This certainly plays to our fears about what the daily flood of social media and emails is doing to us, and to younger generations in particular. However, these figures may be misleading. For one thing, the report contains no real detail for either the goldfish or human attention span beyond the numbers on the web page Microsoft pulled them from.
More importantly, our minds are adaptive systems, constantly reorganising and refocusing our mental faculties to suit the environment. So the idea that our ability to pay attention may be changing in response to the modern, online world is neither surprising nor anything to necessarily worry about. However, there is an argument that we must take care to keep control of our attention in a world increasingly filled with distractions.
The increasing number of distractions in our world is partly due to the new and ever-evolving ways in which advertisers can put their message in front of us – and the “increasingly immersive” techniques they’ll use once the message is there. Realising this helps us understand that our attention is a resource being fought over by advertisers.
The online world is increasingly comprised of spaces where advertisers attempt to tempt us with their products. Similarly, public spaces are increasingly full of adverts that can play sound and video to further capture our attention. Escaping this advertising battleground is becoming one of the luxuries of the modern world. It’s why paid-for executive lounges at airports are free from noisy, garish adverts and why the removal of adverts is a key selling point for paid-for apps.
Our mental abilities are changing, as they always have done in order to best serve our success in changing environments. But now, more than ever, our environment is made by those who either want our attention or want to sell access to it. It will certainly be interesting to see how our cognitive abilities adapt to meet this new challenge. However, as individuals we too must start valuing our attention as much as the advertisers do.