Brain power

Too much information shortens our attention span

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Such is the volume of information at our disposal today, a common analogy is that it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. A recent study1 suggests that this volume of information is having a profoundly negative impact on our attention span.

The researchers wanted to try and find empirical evidence to support the claim that our desire to keep up to date on social media and with our 24/7 news is causing our attention spans to shrink.

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example.” the authors explain.

Attention spans

The researchers examined data from Twitter, Reddit, Wikipedia and Google Trends, together with that from scientific publications, movie ticket sales and 100 years worth of Google Books. The data suggests that we are giving every shorter bursts of attention to each cultural item. This shortening of attention is not driven by social media per se, but rather by the increased production (and consumption) of content. As such, we simply have our mental resources spread thinner and thinner.

With the exception of Wikipedia articles and scientific papers, this trend was consistent across all of the domains examined. The authors believe this could be because of the fundamentally knowledge-driven nature of these media, whereas the other platforms are more news-driven.

The authors developed a mathematical model to detect the hotness of content, its ability to endure, and the thirst consumers have for new content. The model showed that when more content is created in a relatively shot timeframe, it tends to exhaust our collective attention much earlier. What’s more, this narrow peak of public interest for one topic is rapidly followed by the next topic, with intense competition for our attention.

“The one parameter in the model that was key in replicating the empirical findings was the input rate – the abundance of information. The world has become increasingly well connected in the past decades. This means that content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly.” the authors explain.

As our reserves of attention remain largely static throughout time, the inevitable result is that this attention is spread ever more thinly across the rising volume of content.

It should be said that the authors were only examining the collective attention across society, and therefore they have no comment to make on our individual attention spans, or how they can be manipulated. They do express a desire to explore this in future work however, which given the exponential increase in content vying for our attention, is surely something that will be a valuable aid in the modern information age.

Article source: Too Much Information Shortens Our Attention Span.

Header image source: William Iven on Pixabay, Public Domain.

Reference:

  1. Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B. M., Hövel, P., & Lehmann, S. (2019). Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nature communications, 10(1), 1759.

Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and Work.com, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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