Is technology making your attention span shorter than a goldfish’s?

Martin Thirkettle, The Open University and Graham Pike, The Open University


If you’ve ever found it hard to concentrate on one thing without stopping to check your emails or post to social media, you’re not alone. The average human attention span – how long we can concentrate effectively on a single task – was recently reported by Microsoft to have dropped below the level attributed to goldfish.

This certainly plays to our fears about what the daily flood of social media and emails is doing to us, and to younger generations in particular. However, these figures may be misleading. For one thing, the report contains no real detail for either the goldfish or human attention span beyond the numbers on the web page Microsoft pulled them from.

More importantly, our minds are adaptive systems, constantly reorganising and refocusing our mental faculties to suit the environment. So the idea that our ability to pay attention may be changing in response to the modern, online world is neither surprising nor anything to necessarily worry about. However, there is an argument that we must take care to keep control of our attention in a world increasingly filled with distractions.

Attention is a phenomenally awkward thing to study and the manner in which it is tested enormously impacts on the results. This is one of the reasons attention is one of the most enduring and active research areas in psychology: more than 1,200 papers have been published on it just in the past 10 years.

But assuming the numbers in the report reflect some research – no matter what the method behind the data was – it’s still not reasonable to apply them to any situation other than the one in which they were generated. Applying them to all aspects of our lives, as the report implies we should do, is a huge stretch.

Published scientific research looking at the effect of modern technology on our cognitive abilities does show an effect on attention. But contrary to popular opinion, it shows attention spans have actually improved. For example, habitual video gamers have demonstrated better attentional abilities than non-players – and non-players who started playing video-games began to show the same improvements.

Brain training

There’s no reason why the modern world should necessarily diminish our mental faculties and no reason to fear them changing. Our cognitive abilities are constantly changing and even naturally vary across the day.

One of our projects at the Open University is currently collecting data on these daily cycles. We’ve developed a smartphone app that includes a measure of attention alongside four other cognitive tasks. By using the app across the day, you can participate in this research and chart these natural changes in your own performance. This can enable you to better plan your day and finally understand if you actually are a morning or evening person.

However, as interesting as possible variations in cognitive abilities are, a more pertinent question may be what or who is driving the changes in our environment. Happily, this question is much easier to answer. The Microsoft study is aimed at advertisers, not the general public, and calls on companies to use “more creative, and increasingly immersive ways to market themselves”.

The increasing number of distractions in our world is partly due to the new and ever-evolving ways in which advertisers can put their message in front of us – and the “increasingly immersive” techniques they’ll use once the message is there. Realising this helps us understand that our attention is a resource being fought over by advertisers.

The online world is increasingly comprised of spaces where advertisers attempt to tempt us with their products. Similarly, public spaces are increasingly full of adverts that can play sound and video to further capture our attention. Escaping this advertising battleground is becoming one of the luxuries of the modern world. It’s why paid-for executive lounges at airports are free from noisy, garish adverts and why the removal of adverts is a key selling point for paid-for apps.

Our mental abilities are changing, as they always have done in order to best serve our success in changing environments. But now, more than ever, our environment is made by those who either want our attention or want to sell access to it. It will certainly be interesting to see how our cognitive abilities adapt to meet this new challenge. However, as individuals we too must start valuing our attention as much as the advertisers do.

Martin Thirkettle is Lecturer in psychology at The Open University.
Graham Pike is Professor of forensic cognition at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Why are the harms caused by poverty so ignored?

Joanna Mack , The Open University

and Stewart Lansley, Bristol University

Over the last three decades, overall wealth in Britain has doubled, yet the number of people falling below the minimum standard of living set by society as a whole has risen alarmingly, from just over one in six in 1983 to nearly one in three today.

The view promoted by the coalition government ministers and much of the media is that rising poverty is largely self-inflicted and a matter of individual failure – ‘a lifestyle choice’ as ministers like to call it. This individualistic focus on the causes of poverty echoes a tendency within social sciences and criminology to focus more on ‘the abstracted rational actor, as the primary unit of harm analysis’ rather than the differential impacts on different social groups of wider social and economic changes. Furthermore, it enables a policy focus that sees the role of the state as limited to changing the behaviour and aspirations of those who ‘fail’ – often through punitive means, such as benefits sanctions – and providing some, limited, support to enable them to change their prospects. Thus the coalition government imposed a series of ongoing cuts in benefit levels, leading to rising numbers turning to charitable help for the most basic of needs.

In our new book, Breadline Britain – the rise of mass poverty, we chart the rise in poverty in Britain over the last three decades through four large scale surveys – the ‘Breadline Britain’ surveys of 1983 and 1990 and the subsequent ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion’ surveys of 1999 and 2012. These surveys measure poverty using the public’s views on what is an unacceptable standard in contemporary Britain. Respondents are asked which of a long list of items and social activities, from a basic diet and minimum housing decency to a number of personal and household goods and leisure and social activities, they consider to be essential for living in Britain today.

This method establishes a minimum standard based on what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no-one should have to do without. This is the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty. It’s a standard that has support from all groups in society, across different social classes, genders, ages and, significantly, political affiliations. These surveys conclusively show that the public take a clear relativist view of poverty.

In 2012, the proportion of people who could not afford (as opposed to did not want) a number of the most basic of the publicly-defined necessities was higher than in 1983. Around six percent of households lived in a damp home in 1983, dropping to just two percent in 1990. It now stands at ten percent. The percentage of people who cannot afford to heat their home adequately has trebled since the 1990s, rising from three to nine percent. Nearly one in five children – 2.5 million – live with damp, while over half a million children live in a home that is both damp and cold.

Having enough food is another core aspect of everyone’s conception of poverty. The Department of Health has defined food poverty as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. The proportion of households unable to afford two meals a day stood at three percent in 2012, back to the levels found thirty years earlier, having dropped to negligible levels in the intervening period.

There has also been an increase in the numbers struggling to maintain a diet of sufficient quality. Being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables every day has been a consistent health message of recent years – yet the percentage of households where adults go without has risen from five percent in 1999 to seven percent in 2012. The proportion of households where the adult goes without ‘meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day’ (a measure of adequate protein in the diet) is up – from two percent in 1999 to five percent in 2012. On the basis of the three adult food necessities (two meals; fruit and vegetables; and meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent), three and half million adults are not properly fed by the standards set by the public. In addition, half a million children are not adequately fed.

The negative impact of poverty on people’s lives is very well established. Children who live in damp and mouldy homes are up to three times more likely than those in dry homes to suffer from coughing, wheezing and respiratory illness. This has long term effects on people’s health and well-being beyond childhood. The number of ‘excess winter deaths’ – the additional numbers that occurred from December to March compared to the average for the rest of the year – is on the rise following a long-term decline since the 1960s.

Poor diet is a risk factor for the UK’s major killer diseases. In a review of the evidence, the Royal College of Physicians reports that it contributes to almost half of coronary heart disease and a third of cancers. For growing numbers, it leads to diabetes, for older people it increases the risk of fractures, and for pregnant mothers there is a greater chance of a baby of low-birth weight.

Figure 1: Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012

Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012The pressure on living standards is also having a much wider impact.  In 2012, under half of adults could afford all the necessities, fourteen percent lacked one, nine percent lacked two while thirty percent of adults were unable to afford three or more necessities. Moreover, the percentage of households that cannot afford each of the items and activities seen as necessities in 2012 and 1999 has, in nearly all cases, risen or stayed the same. For some, the increase has been large: those unable to afford to ‘replace or repair broken electrical goods’ up from twelve to twenty-six percent; and those unable to afford ‘appropriate clothes for a job interview’ – a particular problem for the young unemployed – up from four to eight percent. There was also a rise in the proportion of children missing out on a number of key necessities, in some cases more than doubling. In 1999, two percent of children couldn’t afford a school trip once a term; by 2012 it was eight percent.

Significantly, these material and social deprivations are associated with other disadvantages and harms. Figure 1 shows that looking across all the necessities, fifty-nine per cent of those who lack three or more necessities say their health is affected in some way (from ‘slightly’ to ‘a lot’) by their situation and seventy-three percent have at least one financial problem (that is, they are constantly struggling to keep up with their bills or have fallen behind, they have during the last year borrowed to meet day to day needs or have been in arrears on one or other of their household bills). In addition, half of those who lack three or more necessities suffer four or more of the standard twelve indicators of stress, anxiety and depression used in government surveys, a cut-off widely taken as an indicator of poor mental health. Those who lack control over their lives, and sense this lack of control, pay the cost in poor mental health.

Even those with moderate levels of material deprivation, those who lack one or two items, are more likely to face a range of other disadvantages. Thus, a fifth of those lacking one item and a fifth of those lacking two say their health is affected in some way, a quarter of those lacking one item and forty-one percent of those lacking two have one or more financial problems, and a quarter of those lacking one and nearly a third of those lacking two have poor mental health.

In sharp contrast, those lacking none of the necessities are much less likely to experience other disadvantages. There is a clear gap between the experience of the forty-seven percent of the population who have all the necessities and the fifty-three percent who lack at least one and especially those who lack three or more. Among this latter group a large majority face a range of other problems.

Using a cut-off point of those who cannot afford three or more necessities – a group whose deprivations are both overwhelmingly enforced (by lack of income) and whose lives are affected in deep and multiple ways – the level of deprivation poverty has been steadily rising over the last thirty years – up from fourteen percent in 1983 to thirty percent in 2012. While the poor today are in some respects better off than those in the early 1980s, in particular possessing a wider range of consumer goods, they are less a part of the society in which they live. It is this that impacts on people in such a harmful way. Not only are they more likely to suffer direct harms – such as illness – but they also suffer harm in terms of the denial of resources to – using Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities – be able to live the life one values.

This sharp rise in poverty – and its related harms – cannot be explained by a sudden explosion of individual failings. In contrast, it is intimately connected to the rapid rise in inequality resulting from the great interlocking social and economic upheavals of the last thirty years, many of them politically driven. The rolling back of the welfare state, the deregulation of markets (in particular financial markets), and the impact of increasing unrestricted terms of trade through globalisation have come at an enormous cost for increasingly large numbers of people.

Today’s working generation faces a much more treacherous labour market, one that has brought greater joblessness, the spread of low pay and deepening insecurity at work. These problems have been compounded by other changes from the shrinking of housing opportunities, especially for the young, to a deliberate shift in the burden of economic and social risks from the state and employers to the individual. People have increasingly been left to cope by themselves at the very time when insecurity and uncertainty have been on the rise.

The widespread harms caused by poverty have been ignored – despite being well established – precisely because they stem from the very organisation of society. When that organisation is dependent on promoting the primacy of individual agency and responsibility – or, in current parlance, of personal choice – then the harms of poverty are all too easy to blame on the poor themselves. Recognising that poverty stems from the accumulated reductions in opportunities, pay and life chances that result from systematic barriers acting differentially on people – dependent on their social and economic context – poses a much more fundamental challenge. It requires different ways of thinking about, and greater levels of inquiry into, how society could be organised to produce lower levels of poverty. Crucially, it challenges the current, dominant, free market model of capitalism with it bias toward capital and widening inequality.