Chapter 17 Distractions in the world

Humans aren’t the only animals that get distracted.

17.1 Predators and prey

Various species of lizards can re-grow their tail if their tail gets cut off. Scientists are very interested in this - one reason is that it would be great if we could re-generate human limbs!

This broad-tailed gecko was found in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Like many other lizards, it can re-grow its tail.
This broad-tailed gecko was found in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Like many other lizards, it can re-grow its tail.

One curious fact is that some lizards are able to voluntarily release their tail when a predator is pouncing on them and, after the release, the tail starts flicking and even jumping around. So, the tail release mechanism seems to have evolved as a way for the lizards to save their ass, or actually lose their ass, but keep the rest of their body!

If a lizard is about to be completely eaten and it is able to detach its tail, leaving a predator with only the tail, as the rest of the lizard scurries away, the lizard’s life has been saved. And the benefits of tail detachment may go beyond that. Lizards have often been witnessed to release their tail prior to the predator reaching them, whereupon predators have often been witnessed to go for the tail instead of the rest of the lizard.

Here are some candidate reasons why the predator goes for the detached tail:

  • The tail itself is so worth eating that it’s worth abandoning the uncertain chase to devour it. This is called the “consolation prize” hypothesis.
  • The tail distracts the predator, but not because it’s worth switching to and eating.

To investigate these two possibilities, two lizard researchers got on the case. By lizard researchers, I mean people who study lizards, not lizards who do research!

The researchers, Laura Naidenov and William Allen, reasoned that if the consolation prize hypothesis were true and the tail was considered by the predator a decent reward, then the longer the tail, the more likely the predator would be to attack the tail. The idea was that if the tail was considered desirable to eat, a bigger tail should be even more desirable.

If the tail simply distracts the predators from their target (the bulk of the lizard), the researchers reasoned that making the tail more visually conspicuous would increase the amount of engagement with the tail. To do so, the researchers varied how conspicuous the color of the fake lizard’s tail was. One version of the tail was green, while the other version was a conspicuous blue. In nature, some lizards do in fact have tails that are brightly-colored and more conspicuous than the rest of their bodies.

A Western skink, after it released its tail. Photo: William Leonard
A Western skink, after it released its tail. Photo: William Leonard

Naidenov and Allen created a fake lizard with a tail that could be detached by pulling a string. They brought their fake lizard to a local dog park, where they asked people whether they could borrow their dog for an experiment. If they said yes, they lured the dog into chasing the artificial lizard by using a string to pull it along the grass. Once the dog was about one meter from the fake lizard, the researchers released its tail. If at that point the dog lost interest in the chase, no data was recorded, but otherwise the researchers recorded whether the dog continued to chase and attack the body or alternatively attacked the tail.

The researchers ended up doing this to a total of thirty-four dogs, some of which participated in multiple conditions (short versus long fake tail length and blue versus green color). The results, as plotted in their paper, are below.

It doesn’t look like length had an effect. Color, however, seemed to have a large effect. What can we conclude from this?

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, a smartphone maker invented the push notification. Before then, you’d never know you had received a message or other update until you clicked on the associated 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 feeling of 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.

Studies have shown that notifications and social media apps are very 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.

Well, not entirely. I still find myself going to social media over and over again, lured by the possibility that a comment or ‘like’ might be there waiting for me. That is, while turning off notifications has prevented some bottom-up distractions (visual stimuli) from pulling me into activating a time-wasting app, it hasn’t stopped my brain’s top-down drive from continuing to push me in that direction.

Why does my brain have this drive? Social media site designers have structured things such that one often gets a small reward as soon as one opens their app. They have managed to get other users to frequently provide a little bit of social validation (a ‘like’), or an interesting comment or post, that keeps me coming back for more, even if all the time I spend there doesn’t add up to anything really.

17.2 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.