Attention Spans, Goldfish & Fake News

I just came back from a safety conference where one of the presenters stated that humans have an attention span of 8 seconds – less than that of a goldfish. While this is a vivid and easy to remember statistic that many presenters and media sources like to repeat, it is not proven and there seems to be little to no evidence backing it up.

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If you think about it, imagine what we would be like if we really only could pay attention for 8 seconds. Our training classes would be chaotic! While I agree 100% that it is important to include as many opportunities as possible for trainees to be involved during training to help keep them involved and focused, I don’t think we have to worry about people zoning out every 8 seconds. The original source of the goldfish story has not been backed up. More recent studies show much more interesting data pointing out that 1) we don’t have shorter attention spans than goldfish* (usually attributed to the increased use of technology),  2) we are becoming better at multi-tasking (thanks to technology) and 3) our attention spans are actually evolving and learning to be more selective. I am sure you can relate to this as well as I can. We are flooded with information so if you are like me, you will see something and quickly decide if it’s worth your attention before moving to the next thing. In these cases, I am sure my attention span is less than 3 seconds! There is so much coming at us from every direction, we need to be able to limit our focus to a few seconds so that we can focus longer on what’s important.

One important thing I’d like to point out is the overuse of the whole goldfish and attention span story. Even though the original goldfish story was published by Microsoft in 2015 and is still quoted as fact every day in 2019, it has not been backed up by science. In fact, there are dozens of more recent reports that have debunked the goldfish attention span myth. Telling and re-telling the goldfish story is in effect, fake news. As trainers, we need to check and re-check the stories and statistics such as this before we teach them to others as “the way it is.”  The goldfish attention span story is relatively harmless but it’s an example of how something can so easily perpetuate.  Going past the first page of Google search results can often show facts, research and opinions that differ  from the more popular ones being quoted by everyone else.  A few resources to check your information, plus a few links about the goldfish attention span story are below.  I hope you can come to your own conclusions and keep an open mind in the future.

PS – If you got this far, your attention span is definitely longer than 8 seconds!

Note: The lowly goldfish actually has a much longer attention span than 8 seconds and goldfish researchers take offense at this poor little guy being used as the poster child for poor attention spans. If you are really interested in goldfish attention spans, the research studies are available online.

 

  1. http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/ 
  2. http://brandongaille.com/average-attention-span-statistics-and-trends/  
  3. http://www.iflscience.com/brain/do-you-have-lower-attention-span-goldfish/ 
  4. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790 
  5. https://guides.stlcc.edu/fakenews/factchecking
  6. https://martechseries.com/sales-marketing/customer-experience-management/survey-finds-attention-spans-arent-shrinking-theyre-evolving/

 

 

 

 

The Feynman Technique

Have you heard of the Feynman Technique? If you want to learn something – really learn something – the 4 steps proposed by Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist, can help. The 4 basics steps of the Feynman Technique are shown below but in a nutshell, they are: 1) Pick a concept and write it out as if you were explaining it to a child (no big, hairy technical words or jargon); 2) identify areas where you had trouble explaining the concept. This is where there are gaps in your knowledge. Go back and find the information you need and study it so that you can now explain that information to an 8 year old; 3) organize your notes and organize them into a story that is again, simple and easy to understand. If there are still confusing parts, go back and rewrite your summary story; 4) Tell someone else about it. A good way to see if you really understand something is to try to explain it to someone else.  (We can use this last step in safety training – more on that in tomorrow’s post).  Take a look at the infographic below which summarizes a description of the Feynman technique that was originally posted on the Farnham Street blog.  What do you want to learn next? Can you try the Feynman Technique and see if it works?

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Chunk-It

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One way athletes are often taught to learn a new skill is by breaking it down into small chunks and then perfecting each of these steps.  In The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle writes “Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and … combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful.”

Chunking is one way to help trainees to remember more. (See my earlier post on “Reducing” for more). If you are training a class how to do something, think about how you could break down (chunk) each part of the act and focus on each step separately. Let’s take an easy example – how to use a fire extinguisher (from OSHA’s website)

The first step shown is to select the appropriate screenshot_513.png

To chunk down this instruction, you could concentrate on the 4 steps listed as separate training “chunks.”

Pull the Pin – Can you set up a situation where trainees get to actually break the tamper seal and pull the pin? Is there anything else you assume they should know – or anything that you believe to be “common sense” but might need special reinforcement?

Aim – Can you do a demonstration that shows what happens when you aim at the base and when you aim elsewhere?  Can the trainees practice? How far away should you stand? What is a realistic situation for a workplace fire in your facility? It most certainly won’t look like the bonfire shown in the OSHA image. Will it be in a trashcan? If so, how do you aim at the base if you can’t see the base? When should a trainee attempt to put the fire out with the extinguisher and  when should they leave the area? (that question gives me an idea for a new training activity  – let me know if you want to see what I come up with). Think how you can break this step down to make the training as specific, realistic and applicable to the trainees’ work environment as possible.

Squeeze  – How hard does the handle need to be squeezed? How long? What if someone doesn’t have great hand strength? Do you need to squeeze fast or slow? Do you fingers go on top or bottom of the handle? What happens with it begins discharging? Is it easier or more difficult to squeeze the handle? What if they are wearing gloves? Is it more difficult? Can you have the trainees practice?

Sweep – How long and how fast do you sweep from side to side? How long will the extinguisher last? How will you know how long it will last before you use it? What should you do if the extinguisher runs out before the fire is out?  If the fire appears out, how long do you need to watch it? Should you throw water on it or do anything else after the fire is gone?

Do you get the idea? Each step in a relatively simple set of instructions can be broken down into a mini-topic. If you can’t see trainees face-to-face on consecutive days or weeks to cover each mini-topic (while referencing what was previous learned) maybe you could send out for emails or text messages with each focusing on one of the steps.

Four simple steps might seem just like four simple steps but as you can see by the random questions each step generated above, there could be a lot of questions zooming around your trainees head. If you don’t talk about actual fire possibilities in your workplace and specific conditions and challenges that might come with those fires, the training information will not stick so with every chunk you are able to create, make sure to integrate the real-world information your trainees need to know.