Why Donald Trump's Distracting Tweets Work So Well, According To Psychology
Media commentators have noticed an intriguing pattern in the tweeting habits of President-elect Donald Trump. A man who has never shied away from a 140-character screed to express his deepest political thoughts, Trump has used Twitter with a lot of vigor throughout his campaign and as he comes to office, often to explosive and controversial effect — and it seems that they're actually part of a concerted media strategy. The Washington Post has called them "weapons of mass distraction," part of a ploy to pull focus, shift headlines, and cause media storms. We're so caught up in presidential tweets about FAKE NEWS and yelling at car manufacturers that other issues, like senate confirmation hearings, lose our focus.
The psychology of distraction is an interesting thing, one used extensively by propaganda makers, advertisers, and other manipulators of public attention throughout history. What keeps us focused on something, what draws our attention away, and what happens when something shiny appears and prompts our attention to flicker away? What Trump is doing, consciously or not, is part of a long legacy of distraction as tactic: ancient Roman emperors knew the value of throwing lavish games to divert people from political unrest, for instance.
So why does it work so well? Why are we such an easily distracted species, and is our propensity to chase Tweets down to our environment, our personalities, our brains, or some weird combination of the three?
How Distraction Actually Works In The Brain
Distraction is actually a reasonably good evolutionary strategy. If we, as early humans on the Savannah, were too good at focusing completely on the task in front of us, we might not have spared enough attention to notice predators or opportunities in the distance. But how does distraction work in the brain, and what does it interrupt? Some studies have shown that more distractions seem to correspond with more brain activity, but what that actually means for how our brains work is disputed.
There are, as Fergus Craik explained in Frontiers In Psychology in 2014, two different theories about why distraction makes us less productive in some areas. One is that we have a sort of general amount of attention to spare, and that giving any of it up results in problems. Another is that distraction is only a real problem if it's similar to what we're supposed to be doing (like blocking out music if we're trying to learn something aloud). There's evidence to support both theories, and we're still sorting it out. To complicate things even further, a study in 2013 found that people with memory impairments actually do better on memory tasks if they're given a bit of a distraction halfway through.
So are Trump tweets only bad for people who are trying to read up on politics in general (or indeed read anything at all), or for everybody who gets involved? Unclear.
When We're Anxious, We're More Easily Distracted
There's a specific contextual reason Trump tweets and other alarmist bits of distracting information might be interfering with our attention right now. Anxiety makes people more susceptible to distraction. A famous study back in 1992 found that more anxious people were "more affected by distracting stimuli," particularly if the stimuli seemed to be physically threatening.
Interestingly, a study done in 2013 about distraction and anxious people found that the type of distraction is a big factor in how we react. In the study, 150 people of varying levels of anxiety were shown different distracting pictures and then had their performance levels assessed. When the most anxious people saw pictures that were negative but not threatening, like graveyards, they actually did really well on tasks. When they were shown terrifying negative things, like vicious dogs, their attention went out the window, as did the attention of less anxious people. If Trump only Tweeted vaguely sinister things we'd likely be OK — but his tendency to shout and get aggressive is likely not helpful to us, in our anxious state about the future.
Distraction Can Work To Persuade Us, But Not Always
It's one of the more interesting questions in the psychology of distraction: Does getting distracted while somebody's trying to persuade you of something help or hinder how convinced you are? Back in 1974, two scientists set up an experiment to test it. Subjects were put through a bunch of distractions of different kinds while listening to an argument. The more they were distracted, the more they believed the argument, and the less capable they were of arguing against it. Bad news for effective political argument under Trump.
A further study in 1976 refined how it works: If the argument in question was easily ripped to shreds, distraction was a good idea, because the people were less likely to be able to counter-argue it. But if the argument was just meant to make subjects feel positive emotions, distraction actually got in the way. In other words, Trump's distractions (which Mother Jones identifies as part of a four-pronged approach of "dismiss/distract/distort/dismay") needs to be delicately tuned so as not to get in the way of any warm fuzzies.
When Distracted, We Can't Focus On Long Sequences Of Logic
Here's the big thing about distraction: It interrupts us when we're attempting to follow long logical sequences of thought (like, say, Jared Kushner, anti-nepotism laws, and calling a Congress representative to yell about it all). A set of experiments published in 2014 found that distractions in the middle of long sequencing tasks made people forget where they were in the task itself, whether the task was easy or hard.
However, there's some hope for us as the state of American politics gets more and more labyrinthine and alarming. Research published in 2016 found that we're actually less likely to get distracted when the task we're attempting is pretty difficult, provided that we're engaged and motivated enough. Considering that we can probably put "keeping up with American politics and the machinations of the Trump White House" in the very difficult basket for the next four years, the lesson is hopeful: if we stay on task, Trump's tweets won't distract us from our purpose.