Or Would You Rather Be a Fish?*

In a recent Faculty Focus blog, The Power of Mindfulness, Jennifer Lorenzetti points out that the average attention span of humans is estimated at 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000, while that of goldfish is 9 seconds. She follows this with: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in your class could manage to be mentally present for the entire class?” Should she also have asked “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in your class were a goldfish?”

More questions: How do you measure the attention span of a goldfish? What does that have to do with human attention span? What do goldfish use their attention spans for? How can I have any self-esteem if I have a shorter attention span than a fish?

Perhaps the fact that I got stuck on the goldfish intro and didn’t go on to grasp the rest of the article proves that I have a short attention span. Nevertheless, rather than write about mindfulness, I decided to browse for information on the attention span of goldfish.

Almost immediately I discovered that I am not the first to do this. Among those who have, Ray Adams is very skeptical about Google searches and attention span research. He could not confirm the actual attention span of goldfish (or people for that matter). Back to goldfish. Ken McCall did an even more thorough search. He traced the statistic back to the Statistic Brain, but they don’t explain its source either. They define attention span as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”

A 2014 Ministry of Truth blog also can’t find a source for attention span in goldfish, likening it to another widely touted goldfish characteristic–that goldfish have a 3-second memory span (how long something is remembered). However, that assertion was debunked by scientists in two studies showing that goldfish memories could last for months.

Lorenzetti may have gotten her information from a recent publicized article by Microsoft Canada, Attention Spans, reporting research on human attention span in the digital age. They used the goldfish 9-second statistic.

The researchers found that Canadian attention spans are decreasing, but people are able “to do more with less,” making decisions based on little information. The Microsoft study’s goal was to advise advertisers on digital messaging. Their advice was to be concise, novel, and interactive where appropriate.

The Microsoft researchers didn’t study goldfish or give advice on how to get their attention. Should we just be amazed that we function as well as we do with such short attention spans?

Research will continue on human attention span in the digital age because it affects how we learn and communicate. But is attention span the same no matter what we are involved in? While my attention span for Lorenzetti’s article was short, it was quite substantial for researching goldfish and writing this blog.

So, I’m not convinced that we are losing out to goldfish. Now, if we could measure goldfish attention span while they’re surfing the Internet or playing Grand Theft Auto….

*From Swinging on a Star by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen

3 thoughts on “Or Would You Rather Be a Fish?*

  1. Thanks for the mention in your interesting article about the Goldfish and the scale of their attention span. You already pointed out that your attention span drew you off task, and I admit my article length exacerbates the problem of shortened span. However, I can’t help but copy out and paste in here my “ultimate source” for the fishy comparison between man and marine life. “A little more searching revealed a study commissioned by Lloyd TSB, an insurance company, in 2008 which gave an ‘attention span’ figure of 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes a decade ago.” So, as in all matters of life, we can blame the insurance company and smugly move on to some other consideration. Within the allotted 5 minute span.

  2. Thanks for “clarifying” the issue. One more fishy comparison: Writing a blog is like living in a fishbowl–only shorter.

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