Sound Bites Catch Up to Attention Spans

Posted by Cord Jefferson

bored in class
New research finds that the average political sound bite—defined as any footage of a candidate speaking uninterrupted—has dropped to just eight seconds. (About the time it took to you read that last sentence.) To give that information some context, consider that, during the 1968 presidential election, the average sound bite was a full 43 seconds. And as recently as the 1990s, CBS said it wouldn’t broadcast any sound bite under 30 seconds in an effort to better promote informed, complex discourse. Two decades later, we’re letting candidates get out about a third of that before cutting them off.

This trend is not new, nor is it specific to television, with research showing that, in 1916, “the average political quotation in a newspaper story had fallen to about half the length of the average quotation in 1892.” What is new is that this modern clipped sound bite dovetails perfectly with a culture growing less and less able to pay attention.

According to a July 2010 article (PDF) published in the medical journal Pediatrics, increased exposure to television and video games caused noticeable decreases in attention spans in schoolchildren. And there’s evidence to show that the multitasking aptitude of which many Americans are so proud actually does damage to important alertness capabilities. In England, one study said the average attention span amongst university students was 10 minutes. In other words, in the lightning-fast, multimedia society we’ve become, where you’re only as good as your last YouTube video/tweet/Tumblr update, the attention span may be an endangered species—and we've got the barely there sound bites to prove it.

A message to the presidential candidates of 2040: More "I Like Ike!" Less "Four score and seven years ago..."

photo (cc) via Flickr user saimen