The Attention Span Myth

There’s this modern myth about our attention span being really short, damaged by mobile phones and the internet. Usually these arguments are based on anecdotal-evidence, without any attempt at refuting them. So when I found this nugget in Donald A. Norman’s book Emotional Design, I had to share it:

Today it is customary to argue that short attention spans are caused by advertisements, video games, music videos, and so on. But, in fact, the ready distractibility of attention is a biological necessity, developed through millions of years of evolution as a protective mechanism against unexpected danger: this is the primary function of the visceral level. This is probably why one byproduct of the negative affect and anxiety that results from perceived danger is a narrowing and focusing of attention. In danger, attention must not become distracted. But in the absence of anxiety, people are easily distracted, continually shifting attention. William James, the famous philosopher/psychologist, once said that his attention span was approximately ten seconds, and this in the late 1800s, far before the advent of modern distractions.

Parts of this make more sense when read in the context of the book, but the two sentences that I higlighted really work on their own. In other words: Short attention spans isn’t a new problem at all and definitely not caused by the internet or mobile phones or any other modern media.

PS: Good article in the New York Times with, for some reason, the same title as this article. I hadn’t read itbefore posting this.


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  1. I am not convinced, especially not by unreferenced evidence involving evolution. Using evolution in pseudo-science to explain a complex discussion is like bringing the Nazis into a moral discussion: A “Totschlagargument” (~ killer argument?).

    Is there a footnote to this comment? Does the author leave any trace of where he got this from or is it just a plain assumption? I mean, you could turn it around and say that the ability to hunt and trace down prey would’ve needed a strong determination and thus a long attention span! :-}

  2. In the notes section at the end of the book, he’s got this:

    “Attention span … ten seconds.” I believe it is in James’s Principles of Psychology (James, 1890), but although I have relied on this quotation for more than thirty years, it is also more then thirty years since I read it. Try as I might, I have been unable to find it again in order to provide a proper bibliographic reference.

    That book is also quoted on the wikipedia page for Attention and available in full text.

    Not necessarily furthering the actual point at all, but maybe something to look into.

  3. So much for anecdotal evidence… 😉

  4. jorn i don’t think the problem is so much short attention span as being present in the moment.

    In other words the situation now is such that, out in public in particular, not only do i now to be present in my own moment but also on constant look out for all the moron zombies on devices, not present in theirs.