Chapter 16 Distractions in the world

Many of us get a lot out of our phones and other devices. Whether it is scoring likes on Tik-tok or Instagram, seeing family updates on Facebook, or chatting with acquaintances on WhatsApp or Discord, or just getting an email from a friend, there is a constant stream of pleasant stimulation available to many of us. Thus, opening one of these apps can become strongly associated with a small feeling of reward. As the first president of Facebook put it, “It’s a social-validation feedback loop… Exactly the kind of thing a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” (Allen 2017). The stream of small rewards keep us coming back to social media apps.

In 2003, the producer of a popular smartphone at the time invented the push notification. Before then, you couldn’t know whether you had received new messages or other updates in an app until you clicked on that app. But with the invention of the push notification, smartphone and other device developers added the capability for apps to pop up messages or sounds on your screen to indicate a new message. Later this was expanded to all sorts of updates, such as a “like” to one of your posts, or a share or retweets.

There was a tight association between these notifications and a small experiential reward. This places the modern user of devices, then, in much the situation of those participating in the experiment by Le Pelley et al. (2015). When we are trying to concentrate on a task, a notification may pop up on our device. In part because of the association the notification has with reward, the notification is likely to distract us. Our performance on the task we are trying to concentrate on has been impaired. And that’s the situation even when we don’t click on the notification and go into the associated app.

We don’t have time in these lectures to get into details of how to deal with this, but studies have shown that notifications and social media apps are enormously disruptive to people when they are trying to get things done. For that reason, psychologists and productivity gurus will tell you to turn off notifications in all your apps. Moreover, you should put your phone out of reach when you are working or studying or use an app to temporarily disable them if you have to use your phone. You can do the same thing on your computer - disable social media apps, Youtube, etc. with various programs that you can download to your computer.

At various times, I myself have found myself spending a lot of time on one social media site or app or another. It really helped to turn off all notifications to help me prioritise things. I still use social media, but now I’m the one controlling that rather than a tech company’s algorithm.

16.1 Exercises


Allen, Mike. 2017. “Sean Parker Unloads on Facebook: God Only Knows What It’s Doing to Our Children’s Brains’.” Axios.
Le Pelley, Mike E., Daniel Pearson, Oren Griffiths, and Tom Beesley. 2015. “When Goals Conflict with Values: Counterproductive Attentional and Oculomotor Capture by Reward-Related Stimuli.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144 (1): 158.