Monthly Archives: December 2008


I’ve had a new baby, and two children take up all your time, so I’ve not added to this blog for a little while. However, a bit of research (that is vaguely connected to having kids) inspired me to restart my writing here. The headlines were:

Pressure of modern life causes accidents in the home

This is just the kind of ‘bad social science’ I love to find, partially because I used to be employed doing this kind of stuff. The research is commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance, who get their name in a news article in an ‘advertorial’ mode, and it is conducted by a consultant (David Moxon), and he probably got one of the big name survey companies to do the survey. We have a number of social facts, in this case a ‘shorter attention span’, ‘a “surge in domestic accidents’, and people ‘blam[ing] stress or too much work’ (see PA’s report). More accidents mean we should go out and get insurance!!!

However, some of these social facts are questionable, and thus the links between them don’t make much sense at all, and others may have much more obvious explanations. The one thing this research found was that some people had accidents and blamed it on stress, and that attention spans were shorter in younger people. Let’s look at each part in turn:

More accidents: A&E statistics do show a rise but a strange one. Between 1987 and 2003 the figures were very steady (and presumably decreasing when you take into account population growth). The numbers grew suddenly but this coincided with changes in the way figures were compiled and new ways of organising A&E provision. I’m not convinced there are more accidents.

‘more stress or too much work’: Time use surveys show that the average amount of total work done (paid work and unpaid work such as housework) was actually decreasing between 2000 and 2005, and this is true across all age groups. I guess it’s possible that those having accidents have had their hours increased while others have seen them decrease, but this seems unlikely. The activities that are taking more of our time are watching TV and using computers.

The fact that attention spans are shorter in young people points to other explanations. First, younger people are more likely to have young children. The attention parents need to pay to their kids is attention they could be directing to the burning toast. Presumably this has been true since the beginning of time. We need to know if attention spans of the 25 year old mum have decreased over time to know if any other explanations are needed.

Second, if attention spans have decreased over time, using the word ‘pressure’ seems absurd. We have more labour saving gadgets, more leisure time, more money and resources than we had in the past. The ‘pressure of modern life’  phrase does a disservice to people who worked all hours in Victorian times, survived two world wars, went through the great depression and so on. It wasn’t so long ago that the normal working week in factories was all-day Monday to Friday, and Saturday morning. The word we are looking for to describe the effect of our times on attention spans is ‘distracted’: too much telly and internet and, oops, the bath is overflowing.


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Filed under bad social science, News, Statistics and simplicity