• Digital Detangler

Chipmunk Theory of Distraction

We've all had that moment of standing up after an hour online with no clue what we did or where our time went. Evidence suggests that our time online is often scattered as we yank our attention from page to page or app to app. "Most web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less" (1). Back in 2012, we were only averaging one minute per app session on our smartphones (2). Why are we so distraction-prone online?

Somewhat strangely we can get some answers by looking at research done with foraging creatures like chipmunks. When chipmunks are collecting nuts they need to optimize the time they spend at each nut source (tree). They want to optimize in part to conserve their energy and be the healthiest (sexiest) chipmunk around when it comes time to mate, but also to avoid traveling for too long in the open. Hawks and owls are all too happy to snatch up chipmunks caught between trees. Those factors have made chipmunks very good at figuring out the best amount of time to spend at each tree before moving on. They are consistent enough to be observed by scientists, who have figured out the two main factors that affect how long chipmunks stay at one tree before heading to the next one. First, the distance between the trees makes a big difference. If your current tree still has plenty of nuts and it is a long, scary trip to your next tree, you tend to stay at each tree longer. On the other hand, if trees are close together, the trip isn't so scary and you can always go back to the first tree if the next one is a dud. The other factor that influences time spent at each tree is the nut density. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, chipmunks stay at trees with lots of nuts for longer. Why leave a place where food is plentiful? On the flip side, if nuts are sparse, you spend so much time looking for the next nut that you reach a point at which it is worth braving the trail to your next tree in hopes of better luck. Distance and density are powerful forces for determining how long any foraging creature spends at a food source (3).

Humans searching for information on electronic devices have these exact same tendencies. Think for a moment about how your browser and smartphone work. Distances between information sources online are tiny; browser page load times are measured in milliseconds; jumping from one app to another on your phone is nearly instantaneous. How about density of information online? Compared to past media (TV, books, magazines, movies), information online and in apps is low in density. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, even blogs encourage us to post our thoughts, but please keep them brief. This explains why we are so distracted on our devices. We've created an environment that optimizes for the least amount of time at each information source (short distance, low density). For a chipmunk, this is similar to trees bunched together with very sparse nuts. Next time you find yourself experiencing web whiplash, flitting from site to site as fast as you can click, at least now you know why.


  1. Carr, N. (2011). The shallows : what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

  2. Eler, A. (2012). Study: Average App Session Lasts About 1 Minute – ReadWrite. Retrieved 16 June 2017, from http://readwrite.com/2012/01/17/study_average_app_session_lasts_about_1_minute/

  3. Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L. (2016). The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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