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Microsoft: Goldfish have higher attention spans than we do thanks to digital lifestyles

Microsoft cross-screen evolution research found that tech and social media savvy users who gobble up digital content on various devices have a shorter attention span than goldfish.

goldfish on pc
Credit: Karen

If you use multiple digital devices, then you may have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. According to Microsoft, "The average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds, but by 2013 it was only 8 seconds (1 second shorter than a goldfish!)."

Microsoft researchers surveyed 2,000 Canadians and used electroencephalograms (EEG scans) to study the brain activity of 112 participants. Microsoft said the goal for its cross-screen evolution research "is to understand what impact technology and today's digital lives are having on attention spans."

The research found that "overall, digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus." Multi-screening behavior, media consumption, social media usage, and technology adoption rate were listed as top factors that impact attention span and the ability to stay focused on a single task.

Microsoft research on evolving attention spans Microsoft

If you are tech-savvy yet can maintain a laser tunnel-vision focus, then you really should ask for a pay raise. Microsoft's research found that long-term focus of early tech adopters, heavy social media users, and people who consume a lot of digital content is mostly eroded.

Although tech-savvy and heavy social media users were said to have "lower sustained attention in the long run," these same individuals have "more bursts of high attention in the short term." Microsoft found that "tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention," but sadly "this advantage erodes over time."

Additionally, "people with higher selective attention appear to actively choose to have fewer distractions and multi-screen less frequency. On the other hand, heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli–they're more easily distracted by multiple streams of media."

Other interesting findings from Microsoft's research included:

  • Following the same pattern as social media usage, early tech adopters pay more attention to digital screens. They also process information better than later adaptors in these interactive environments.
  • For TV, while early adopters pay less attention overall, they still process information significantly better–they've trained their brains to do more with less.

The study, which specifically looked at how Canadians' attention spans have been affected by digital lifestyles, was aimed at marketers as it is apparently harder than ever to snag and keep consumers' attention. "Canadians lose interest, FAST," the research states. "They're suckers for novelty. It's more exciting to jump from subject to subject or device to device than to concentrate on a single thing at any one time."

Microsoft research on attention spans Microsoft

"The thrill of finding something new often makes connected consumers jump off one experience into another. The 'feel good' neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released when consumers are doing something they find rewarding," Microsoft said. "19% of online viewer defect in the first 10 seconds." Part of the advice to advertisers was to make "increasingly immersive, multi-touchpoint experiences" a "priority to combat drop-off amongst these audiences."

Advertisers were advised to address all three types of attention: sustained, selective, and alternating, as well as to look to outdoor advertisements for inspiration on how to best snag attention.

Outdoor inspiration marketing campaign1 Microsoft
Outdoor inspiration marketing campaign2 Microsoft

You can check out the research paper and an infographic here.

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