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Distraction principle


Principles > Distraction principle

Principle | How it works | So what?



If I distract your attention, I can then slip around your guard.

How it works

Because we have limited attention, if something attracts that attention it means we are not paying attention in another area.

Distracting away from the bad news

Sometimes distraction is to get away from what is not wanted. A way distraction is used in buying and selling is where the focus of the conversation is on, for example, the power or attractiveness of the car, which may distract the buyer away from reliability issues.

Procrastination is also a form of self-distraction, where I move yourself away from things I do not want to do, to a more 'important' distraction.

Distracting toward the good news

Distraction can also be towards things which are good, attracting people for example with things that meet their needs (as opposed to threatening their needs).

Making the real idea easy

When distracting with something of interest, you can then slip in something that is easy for the other person to accept. Thus someone buying a car might focus hard on safety factors (as a distraction) and then ask casually 'insurance is included, of course?'


Distraction and misdirection are very close (and are sometimes used to meant the same thing). In distraction, you manage something that the other person notices. In misdirection, you more deliberately direct their attention (although not always obviously).


When what we see does not match what we expect, we become confused. This makes us think again and pay attention to the confusing item in order to try and make sense of it. This effectively acts as a distraction from what is going on elsewhere.

Hypnotic suggestion

Distraction is often used in hypnotherapy, where the hypnotherapist talks about some triviality with the client or otherwise gets their conscious mind engaged in some problem while they put the real message through to the subconscious mind.

This principle of suggestion can be used without deep trance and in ordinary conversation. By emphasising key words, you can give two meanings at once: the apparent meaning and the subtle meaning.

Cognitive load

There are a limited number of things that we can think about at the same time. If you increase the cognitive load on a person by giving the something to think about, they will go inside their own head to think about it, paying less attention to what is going on around them.

Pickpockets, illusionists, martial artists and generals

Distraction is used in all sorts of places. A classic physical method is used by pickpockets, where they will apply sharp pressure to one part of your body, thus distracting your (very localised) attention whilst slipping another gentle hand into your pocket.

Illusionists do the same visually, providing movement and color where they want you to look, whilst palming the coin or doing the real business with the other hand.

Even martial artists do it -- well, at least in the softer arts, such as Tai Chi and Aikido. Like the pickpockets, they apply sharper pressure at one point to make you resist, and then move you where they want with a gentle palm. The harder arts, like Karate and Kung Fu will deliberately distract you for a moment, such as with a noisy foot-stamp or sudden movement to your face, whilst speeding through with the real power punch.

Generals know this principle too: there are many classic military strategies based on distraction. For example, throw a force at a weak point, making the other side rush troops to the rescue, then you apply your main force to the point they have just abandoned.

The principles are all the same. Distract you by using the basic rules of sensation, whilst simultaneously and gently slipping past your guard.

So what?

Notice what people are interested in and where their attention goes, and then use this to distract towards or away from things as necessary. Make the distractions really interesting by focusing them on needs and goals.

See also

Attraction vs. avoidance, Attention, Interest, Needs, Goals, Distraction Fallacies, Diversion, Warfare

Theories about attention, Confusion principle

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