In Search of an Attention Span

In just five years, it appears, our average attention span has declined by one-third, to eight seconds from 12. The lowly goldfish that never focuses on anything for long has an attention span of nine seconds. This trivia shouldn't trigger laughter. It should spark the deepest concern, quite frankly. This crisis of attention threatens our global society's ability to address and resolve increasingly complex international global conflicts at the highest level -- clashes that grow deeper and more intractable. This crisis of attention threatens to keep ups from controlling true diplomatic and other disputes.

This story may illuminate why. My father -- a lawyer and hobby farmer -- rented out pasture land to a large dairy farmer in Neosho, Wisconsin. Invariably, he would go visit his rancher friend Milo, a huge bear of a man, to lease acreage to him. Over time, my dad learned that to do business with Milo required spending lots of time talking about any number of topics before turning to the land deal at hand. Milo wanted first to talk about the newest Farmer's Almanac's weather outlook for the winter. Or cattle feed prices. Or why $600 an acre was not a fair price and why $400-an-acre was the market price.

Milo, you see, followed a ritual and it was essential that my dad embrace it if he had any hope of securing the acreage price he was seeking. So it went, time after time, but my dad usually came home content. Apparently, Milo did, too. Such rituals are often vital when dealing with uncertain situations -- such as most crises -- and when the involved parties are used to following formalities, customs or habits.

What's Happening to Our Brain Chemistry?

In today's digital age, though, our attention span gets shorter and shorter as we use more digital devices that distract us from staying focused, according to the recent study by Microsoft researchers. They used EEG scans to study the brain activity of 112 participants. Overall, they concluded, digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus. They're changing our brain chemistry.

This is -- and should be -- troubling to all of us. And examples appear to be emerging regularly. Case in point: American and Russian diplomats should be conferring over Russia's recent attacks on Syrian rebels in that war-torn country. A disaster easily could occur as both countries conduct sorties in various parts of Syria. But Mideast events are occurring so fast and they're so scattered that international planners and diplomats can't even seem to grasp what they need to discuss and reach consensus about. As a result, the situation could escalate and prove catastrophic.

It's indisputable: Crisis negotiations, with all the sensitivities, varied temperaments and game-playing involved, require participants to dwell on and pay close attention to the crucial topics at hand and the details of the talks that are held. Global geopolitical conflicts aren't the only areas of concern. Crisis negotiations involving Corporate America and government, labor and management and company A vs. company B take time to resolve as well. Each side must explore the other's positions, grasp the true sticking points, consider sensitive compromises and seek resolutions that satisfy all parties.

Just Look to Our Political Scene for Evidence

However, how is this possible when our brains signal we must move on to another rallying or crisis point? You wonder that as you glance over the political headlines. They relate issue after issue involving uncompromising Republicans and Democrats. It also involves their followers -- the American populace, which polls suggest are more deeply divided and viciously so than ever before. On the political front, no one seems to be able to explore how to deal with one divisive issue before turning to another and another. Nothing gets resolved -- and this is dangerous for a democracy where, frankly, fatigue often is a negotiator's ally.

Just as my dad and his rancher friend Milo couldn't rush things and had to pay attention to each other, so must crisis participants everywhere. And if they aren't, which this digital age suggests, the consequences are scary. Here are the consequences, I fear:

  • •A culture of distraction and diversion will impede the human connection required to get parties together to talk through and resolve differences, which usually takes time.
  • • This crisis of attention will keep us from engaging in thinking through things over time because we demand to be stimulated by fresh events.
  • • Critical elements that spark insights and inventiveness eventually will get hazy as we connect more with the digital plaything in front of us rather than the human that's there, too.
Is the situation already out of control? How do we regain equilibrium? What does this portend a decade from now? I don't know. Perhaps we should demand that negotiators trying to resolve any dispute or crisis lock themselves away without any disruptions from digital devices or anything else.

Many thanks to those of you who had the attention span to get through this article. If you post a comment, I'll know that you did.