Distraction Deterrents in Small Contexts

"distracted from distraction by distraction"
- T.S. Eliot
I've been reading a little on how Facebook and other social networking software are designed to grab your attention. A strategy is quick reward. You get little shots of dopamine for clicking on a button and seeing an immediate result.

It gets me thinking. Why do books increase our attention span over a web-page? Both are strings of words on a rectangular, white page. In that regard, they are the same. Web pages are faster, yes; and you can click them to get rewards in looking at new content. And this does indeed help explain why we are tempted to jump around online in a non-focused manner.

But why do we find it easier dive in deep in reading physical books?

If it is easier to jump around web-pages, it's more cumbersome to discard a book. You have to put it down (carefully) and get up to pick another book. So we stick around so long as the book still gives us pleasure enough, because changing activities seems unpleasant.

What's going on, I think, is a kind of cost-reward assessment. We are balancing the rewards of continuing an activity vs. starting a new one. Starting new stuff is more exciting than struggling to the end.

Here we have, in small, the idea of binding ourselves to norms for living more meaningfully: "I will install software that keeps me from checking Facebook every few minutes," or "I will only bring one important book with me to a remote spot in the woods." Like Odysseus, we must bind ourselves to the mast if we are not to be tempted by sirens.


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