Are Our Choices Making Us Miserable?

Harry Potter and the Media Analyst's Attention Span

by Jason Falls |

Our recent discussion of Less or More — an essay on consumer research that says customers want multiple choices when making purchases — lead us to think that simplifying user experiences online may be counterintuitive to a fault. Making our websites and applications more direct paths to common successes and less about giving the customer the opportunity to navigate their own path, could be the sword we digital marketers fall upon.

However, as I’ve continued to ponder this notion of choice or simplicity for customers, I’ve begun to come a realization about my own media habits: Less is better.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about my media habits. This is not research, but first-person narrative. Still, the implications for you and others are there for consideration. Here’s what I mean:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneMy eight-year-old son was recently introduced to Harry Potter. My wife told him to read each of the books before watching the corresponding movie, so he dove into the first edition, finishing it in about a week. But because he wanted to watch with me, he transferred the read-first requirement and now I had to read the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was the first physical book, rather than e-book version, I’d read in quite some time.

Surprisingly, I finished the book quickly, was rather absorbed in it while reading and thoroughly enjoyed it. The same can be said for the second novel.

After my Harry Potter experience, I realized I was having trouble staying as locked in to the text I was reading on my Kindle app on my iPad. More often than not, I’d get bored just reading and open a game, check Facebook or navigate to YouTube or Netflix to watch something more visually stimulating.

Because I was offered an assortment of choice, my attention was fractured, my media use was a series of short-spurts, unfocused and less productive overall. When my only choice is to read on or put the book down, I stay focused, absorb the material and enjoy the experience more.

It turns out, my anecdotal experience is quite supported by actual science.

Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted a study in 2010 that included over 250,000 data points which concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy one. The report, first published in Science, showed that people spend 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. And those that answered generally said they were unhappy about their current activity.

Now, there are some correlations here that break under intense scrutiny. First of all, a wandering mind and having multiple choices in one’s media landscape, while related, are not the same. Also, I found it interesting that the Killingsworth/Gilbert research was conducted by gathering feedback from users of an iPhone application. Simply sending the message to the user disrupted their current activity, potentially biasing the data.

But the research and my hypothesis are pointed in the same direction. That can’t be a coincidence.

With our ever-fracturing media landscape, and growing assortment of choice in what we watch, listen to and read, are we making ourselves miserable? And if so, how can we as consumers combat that misery?

How can we as marketers help consumers combat that misery? Or do we?

The interesting feature of our evolving media world is that it poses far more questions that it delivers answers. Now if I could only focus long enough to figure some of them out.


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).