Nov. 9, 2021

EP 362: Debunking The Myth Of Scarce Attention

EP 362: Debunking The Myth Of Scarce Attention

Have you heard?



The average human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s! Thanks, internet.  TV journalists and politicians talk to us in sound bites, assuming we don’t have the attention for more nuanced analysis. Boomers bemoan fast









Have you heard?



The average human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish’s! Thanks, internet.  TV journalists and politicians talk to us in sound bites, assuming we don’t have the attention for more nuanced analysis. Boomers bemoan fast media like TikTok and Instagram.  It seems like attention might be one of our scarcest and most precious resources.



But I’m starting to wonder whether attention is really a scarce resource. Perhaps what is truly scarce are media and messages worth paying attention to. Before I get into the latter, let’s debunk the former.



It turns out that the panic over our attention spans being less than a goldfish’s is a pseudo-scientific soundbite in and of itself.



Actual research psychologists say they don’t really study “attention span” as a discrete component of how we think. Instead, attention span is relative. How long we can pay attention to something depends on the task, our level of interest, and the varied circumstances we bring to a given situation. For instance, I might be able to work on an essay for hours at a time because I’m fascinated by the subject and in a creative flow. But on another day, even though my interest hasn’t changed, I might not be able to sustain 5 minutes of distraction-free work because I didn’t get enough sleep or I’m feeling anxious about something.



What’s more, according to a BBC article debunking this “common knowledge” about goldfish and attention spans, goldfish do actually have the ability to pay attention! Scientists have been studying fish for over 100 years to get a better idea of how memories are formed and how learning happens—precisely because fish are able to “pay attention” long enough to do both.



So, it turns out that scientists agree that given the right task and the right circumstances, we have an abundance of attention.



That’s not to say that we don’t also have personal, neurological, and systemic challenges with paying attention. But it is to say that, as marketers, we don’t need to fight for our own slice of attention tartlet. How, then, could we approach marketing and business-building differently?



Business owners tell me about how hard it is to reach people on a regular basis. How hard it is to get people’s attention. These business owners try to keep up with the algorithm changes, the trends that are going viral, and the memes that get noticed. This complaint is a red flag 🚩. That’s a meme joke. 



Algorithms and memes aren’t the way to access an abundance of attention.



And when gaming the algorithm and leveraging the memes does pay off? That attention is precarious—fleeting. The attention we do get paid is more like an impulse purchase rather than a long-term investment. Many people today have a greater supply of money than they do time. So getting someone to pay attention—which is a function of time—might be harder than getting them to pay currency.



And yet, it’s understood that the work we create for the payment of attention doesn’t have to be as high quality as work that people pay money for. Quality attention requires quality work. When we make work designed to satisfy the demands of the algorithm, we’re rarely making work that satisfies the interests of the people we want to connect with. Just because something gets likes or reach doesn’t mean people are really paying attention.



Today, the mediascape is very different from when I became a blogger and social media user back in 2009.



Platforms were real channels for sharing whatever it was that you wanted to put online.

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