Because Thinking Is Too Damn Hard

Eight seconds.  According to Timothy Egan, that’s all there is.

A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”

While SJ isn’t a 54-page report, a typical post is going to require more than 8 seconds of your attention.  Likewise, to understand and process a legal issue, pretty much any legal issue, requires more than 8 seconds. This doesn’t bode well for law.

As I was somewhat testily responding to a commenter yesterday, whose beef was that I lacked sufficient empathy to quit using thought and, in its place, hold hands and cry with him, the ubiquitous trend toward resolving all complex issues by resort to emotion was uppermost on my mind.  How did this happen? When did people decide that their feelz answered all questions?  When did people give up thinking?

Cogito ergo sum.  Is this no longer true?

These are rhetorical questions, so please don’t try to answer them. The fact is that “when” isn’t really important anymore, anyway. That it’s happening everywhere, that it has become a primary mover of reaction (“this is horrible, it must be stopped!!!”), that it is at the core of so many ill-conceived moves, is beyond question.  Like it or not, we live in a world where too many people substitute how they feel about things for what they think about things.

And trying to argue the point with them is a pointless endeavor.  First, there’s the problem of emotion not being subject to rational dispute. That’s the nature of emotion; you can feel whatever you feel, and there’s no arguing that you don’t feel it.

Second, those who unwittingly substitute emotion for thought can, and do, employ facile rationalizations to argue their goals, despite the fact that they are logical fallacies. Logical fallacies only matter to people who think. People who feel not only don’t care, but feel even better basking in the glory of winning arguments based upon their own irrationality.  A word was proffered for this, Kafkatrapping.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name.

I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. 

This is by no means exhaustive, but indicative of the game played by the unduly emotional trying to argue their way to the win. The problem is that it can only succeed with those who share the emotion, ignore logic, and reject thought. To a thinking person, it’s just annoying stupidity. Who wants to bother arguing with someone who resorts to logical fallacy and declares themselves the winner?

But notwithstanding the question of when people devolved into emotional jello balls, quivering in the corner and crying sad tears of woe, it seemed that the question of “why” was easier. We all feel emotions, and they require no effort whatsoever.  This implicated Sir Joshua Reynold’s quote:

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.

Thinking is hard. Feeling is easy. Thinking can give people headaches.  Thinking can force people to realize that their desired outcomes, their gut reactions, their rationalizations, are wrong. Feelings are never wrong. Feelings can never be challenged. Feelings win!

Perhaps this oversimplifies, and underestimates, the root of the problem.  Where I had attributed it to laziness, to the refusal to do the “hard labor” of thinking, and to the occasional sufferer of Dunning-Kruger Effect, there may be a more sinister problem afoot that is compelling so many people to substitute their feelz for thoughts.

Eight seconds.  Down from twelve seconds in 2000.

If that’s all a person can muster, a mere 8 seconds of focus, of concentrated attention, then there is no way they can engage in thought. There just isn’t enough time before the next shiny thing catches their eye.  And indeed, there seems to be a correlation between the people who adore shiny things and the people incapable of thought, though I would be reluctant to suggest a causative relationship for fear of violating the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Perhaps they try to focus. They do their very best, and believe with all their heart that those swirly things happening in their body are thoughts. They mean well, and put in the best 8 seconds they could muster.  All to no avail.

My pal, Mike Cernovich, offers a video of his chat with my other pal, Marco Randazza, who I note in passing is an actual “hero of the internet” because he actually does stuff to help people rather than emotes about doing stuff. [Trigger Warning: The video is longer than 8 seconds, so watching it could sprain something.]  Mike notes something that will blow your mind.

Marc and I are as far apart politically as you can imagine. He’s “far left” and I’m “far right.” (Whatever those terms mean today is anyone’s guess.)

You don’t have to agree with someone to like them or to enjoy their company. Hating people because they disagree with you is for feminists and social justice warriors, not for free-thinking, independent people.

This is the difference between disagreement grounded in thought rather than emotion. The unduly emotional claim they only want a dialogue, when they will only accept a tummy rub. There can be no dialogue with someone whose point requires embrace of their emotions.

As a kid, I used to play a party game called Seven Minutes in Heaven. It was how many of us were introduced to sex, a step beyond Spin The Bottle. If Timothy Egan’s Canadian Microsoft study is right, the time frame is reduced to 8 seconds, which is barely enough time to utter, “mother, may I” in order to obtain affirmative consent, a requisite to prevent crime in a closet.

No, the 8 second attention span doesn’t bode well for law or the maturation process. It’s my hope that some of you will risk the headache, if not for engaging in thought, then at least for the sake of sex. Think of the children, if you can think at all.

32 comments on “Because Thinking Is Too Damn Hard

  1. Keith Lee

    Coincidentally, I just read and reviewed a book on this topic by Cal Newport entitled “Deep Work.” It’s central hypothesis is:

    “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

    The effects computing, networking, etc have on our economy and culture lead people to distraction and shallow thought. But at the same time, it requires deep work to actually create things of value in this environment. Which makes those who can actually concentrate and provide deep work incredibly valuable.

    ‘Deep Work,’ “involves professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Their efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

    If you want to be a lawyer – produce briefs, write motions, develop winning oral arguments – I think it’s tough to argue that lawyers should not adopt a “deep work” philosophy. But I also think the increasing shallowness of thought doesn’t bode well for lay witnesses, clients, and juries. Lawyers in the courtroom are going to have to adapt to capture the attention of people who can’t concentrate for more than 8 seconds. I don’t know what that looks like or have a solution, just lamenting the problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      Just between us, Keith, what part of my writing a post on a subject gives rise to your saying to yourself, “oh cool, it’s akin to something I wrote, so I will leave a comment at Scott’s post all about me and my post because it’s all about me!”?

      What you might have considered doing instead is to note, at the end of your post, the similarities you see here. Or perhaps send me an email telling me about them, and suggesting that I add an addendum to my post to note yours. It’s probably not the best idea to use a comment at my post to write all about your post. That’s kinda trying to hijack my post, using my soapbox for your purposes without my approval. There is a chance I might not find that a good or acceptable use of my comments.

      But this is just between us, Keith, as some might feel that my advice is hurtful to your feelz, even though I know that you’re smart enough and tough enough to handle some critical thought.

        1. SHG Post author

          Ironically, had you emailed me, I would have responded enthusiastically. How can I say that? Because moments before I saw your comment, you post came across my feed and I said to myself, “self, this is fortuitous, as Keith just reviewed a book which is very relevant to what I’ve just written, and you ought to add it into the post.”

          Then, before I could do so, I saw that there was a new comment. Weird, right?

          1. John Barleycorn

            Not to put my eight seconds in where it doesn’t belong but if you and Keith every want to start up a cult
            I might know of the perfect little 40 acre spread.

            I will make you a deal on it if you promise not to tweak Cal’s rules too much.

            I can also get you a pretty good contract for producing the videos and work study materials for a small fee.

            P.S. Now if you will excuse me I might need a few days to contemplate the global ramifications of Microsoft doing studies in Canada and what that may mean for gold stocks.

  2. the other rob

    Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says “Evening, Rene, the usual?” Descartes replies “I think not.” and disappears.

  3. REvers

    Eight seconds is just about the length of time I can manage to work on a brief before the phone rings again. It’s also about the same length of time most of my clients seem to be able to remember what I told them the last time they called.

  4. Tom

    Would it be too optimistic to consider that maybe the reason the attention span-o-meter was dialed down from 12 seconds to 8 is that people are getting faster at realizing that most of the media stuff put in front of them is BS and they quickly move on? Ok, maybe that IS too optimistic.

    1. SHG Post author

      Never confuse correlation with causation. While it may be totally true that most of the media is BS, that could be the product of the 8 second attention span rather than the cause.

  5. Jim Tyre

    We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

    Sigh. A vaguely named study that would be impossible to find. Yet neither the op-ed writer nor you provide any actual evidence concerning the attention span of a goldfish.

    Cogito ergo sum.

    That old chestnut. What actually happened was that Descartes was at a late night party, where the hostess was meticulous about detail. (A detail freak, if you ask me.) She put out some snacks, but did not want the guests to partake prematurely, so she asked Descartes to watch over the snacks.

    A famished guest tried, but Descartes thrust himself between the guest and the snacks, and said, in his own polite way, “I think they’re for one a.m.”

  6. mb

    This extends beyond argument as well. I’ve recently been promoted at my job to manage a unit of my employer’s business which had been severely mismanaged for the last two years. (i went from sprinkles to crumbled oreos, if you must know) In the last few weeks of sorting out our substantial inventory variances, I’ve noticed that my assistant, who is otherwise a reasonably smart guy, suffers from a kind of one-stage thinking, whereby he can rationalize away any need for any action on his own part. Anything he can’t figure out becomes “they” didn’t send it or “it” stopped putting it on my order. There is no they or it. There’s a variance, which he caused and identified, and it doesn’t even occur to him that it’s fraudulent and costly not to fix it. As frustrating as this line of thought is in argument, it has potential to do far more damage economically, by making smart, capable people useless.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are two kinds of people, mb. Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.

      And congrats on the Oreo promotion. I have no doubt you richly deserve it.

  7. Richard

    Mr. Greenfield,

    I’ve been reading your blawg for a while, though this is the first time I’ve found occasion to comment. I have downloaded the Microsoft report Egan referred to (Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada. 2015. Attention spans). Link for your convenience: http://advertising.microsoft.com/en/cl/31966/how-does-digital-affect-canadian-attention-spans (I know you don’t permit them in comments).

    It appears that the claim for 8 second attention span did not originate from the report, as it is sourced to “Statistic brain” (page 6 of the report). Statistic Brain Research Institute claims that the average attention span in 2015 is 8.25 versus 12 in 2000 (again, link for your convenience only: http://www.statisticbrain.com/attention-span-statistics/). However, it apparently didn’t gather the data itself either, instead citing “National Center for Biotechnology Information”, “U.S. National Library of Medicine”, and “The Associated Press”. That is as helpful as saying “we found the data in a library somewhere.”

    Looking through all three pages Google Scholar results for “mean attention span” yielded few insights. The few (admittedly dated) studies that were not behind paywalls measured it in minutes. The numbers were probably not comparable between studies, since they involved different tasks.

    Given the obscure origin of the numbers, I suspect that you, respected one, have accidentally latched onto a number spun out of thin air because it fit your preconceptions. Not unlike a certain group you often criticize for doing the same thing.

    1. SHG Post author

      Actually, the 8 seconds (as well as the 12 seconds) isn’t really critical to the post at all. It was used as a rhetorical device (by both Egan and me) to make a point about the pervasiveness of people for whom emotion has become a substitute for thought. Some people will understand this. Most will not.

      However, I have left your links in (I didn’t look at them, but I will trust that you’ve done an exceptional job researching) for anyone obsessed with trifles.

      1. Richard

        In that case, my apologies. Seeing numbers pulled out of nowhere tends to set me off for a bit (“feelz! triggers!”). As an apology, please have an unfunny Descartes joke:
        Q: What happened when Descartes stopped thinking?
        A: Nothing. A proposition implies nothing about its inverse.

        Hopefully more on topic this time: the Microsoft report makes it sound like there is an arms race where the audience is becoming increasingly immune to the distraction of the ads, which in turn forces the advertisers to make their ads more flashy. The same defense mechanisms that help them ignore distracting ads may also help them selectively ignore perspectives that contradict their own.

        1. Dragoness Eclectic

          Re: audiences becoming resistant to ads:

          Jakob Nielsen (web usability expert) was commenting on how web users have learned to tune out anything that looks like an ad over a decade ago. The U.S. Census site got bitten by that one–they made the link to current population figures on the front page of their site large and obvious and just like a banner ad… and people wanted to know why they couldn’t find the U.S. current population on the U.S. Census site! Usability studies confirmed that people were automatically ignoring the link because it looked like a banner ad.

          1. SHG Post author

            Richard wrote his comment three days ago. What are the chances he’s been sitting on it for three days, waiting for you to reply?

            1. Dragoness Eclectic

              I was adding to his comment to show off how intelligent I am and to help educate you, too.

  8. DaveL

    Look on the bright side, Scott. If hard thinking was something most people were good at and enjoyed doing, it wouldn’t pay nearly as well.

  9. Marc R

    8 seconds in heaven would have been adequate time for that youthful game. I think 7 minutes is a good minimal default before hitting “send” or “post” as it gives you enough time to edit your thought for grammar and nuance. Of course that 7 minute interlude would likely be used for instagtwitkiks of tilapia photos and platitudes typed over pop culture photos.

    Even in court the feelz seem to rule. A prosecutors hearsay descriptions at sentencing of the victim impact statements are seriously evaluated against all the lawful mitigators/aggravators that should actually be considered. And as some judges say “the prosecutor didn’t interrupt you so please stop objecting; this is a professional hearing, not a bickering contest for you to worm a record for appeal.” How are some unique snowflake lawyers to engage in rational legal argument when the others dance around the courtroom screaming declarations of unfairness to the innocent victim?

    1. SHG Post author

      8 seconds in heaven would have been adequate time for that youthful game.

      Speak for yourself. I needed at least 12 secondz.

      1. Marc R

        Well I didn’t know you waited until law school to play that game. Regardless, we can all agree over 6 minutes was spent arguing the maximum base you could lie to your friends about.

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