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A new study suggests we might be coping rather well; our concentration performance is better today than it was prior to the rise of the internet.
Researchers from the University of Vienna in Austria dug deep into the data from 287 previously studied samples, covering a total of 21,291 people from 32 countries aged between 7 and 72, across a period of 31 years (1990 to 2021).
Each individual had completed the universally recognized d2 Test of Attention for measuring concentration, which when taken as a whole, showed a moderate rise in concentration levels over the decades, suggesting adults are generally better able to focus compared with people more than 30 years ago.
“Our results indicate that concentration performance in adults has been increasing over the investigated time period,” write the researchers in their published paper.
“Some non-significant, but meaningful gains in concentration performance were observed for children.”
The analysis of concentration and focus was part of a broader investigation into the Flynn effect: the general rise of IQ levels over time, named after the academic James Flynn. In recent years this rise has slowed down and even reversed course in some places.
In this new study, the researchers wanted to study domains of intelligence with respect to the Flynn effect in more detail, looking specifically at attention spans – which are closely linked to overall measures of intelligence.
“A clear positive meaningful Flynn effect was observed for concentration performance in adults,” write the researchers. “This mirrors findings of generational gains found in other executive functions.”
“Given this link, it is possible that the observed fluid IQ gains are rooted in changes in these executive function components.”
The team also looked at measures of how the attention tests were taken over the years. While adult participants have slowed down and made fewer errors as time has gone on, for kids it’s the reverse – they’re now completing tests faster and making more mistakes than they used to, which the researchers put down to greater impulsivity.
As a society we’ve come to value speed over accuracy, the researchers speculate, suggesting a hypothesis that could be followed up and analyzed in more detail at a later date.
In the meantime, it seems we’re not quite as ultra-distracted as we might think we are, and increasing concentration levels could well be contributing to greater intelligence as a population overall. Now ask yourself: how many times did you break off from reading this article before you reached the end?
“Our results are consistent with the idea that IQ test score changes may be rooted in changes in executive functioning components and provide further support for domain-specificity of the Flynn effect,” write the researchers.
The research has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.