Smartphones have been shown to distract people from their main tasks (e.g., studying, working), but the psychological mechanisms underlying these distractions are not clear yet. In a preregistered experiment ( https://osf.io/g8kbu/ ), we tested whether the distracting nature of smartphones stems from their high associated (social) reward value. Participants ( N = 117) performed a visual search task while they were distracted by (a) high social reward apps (e.g., Facebook app icon + notification sign), (b) low social reward apps (e.g., Facebook app icon), and (c) no social reward apps (e.g., Weather app icon). We expected that high social reward app icons would slow down search, especially when people were deprived of their smartphones. Surprisingly, high social reward (vs. low or no social reward) apps did not impair visual search performance, yet in a survey ( N = 158) participants indicated to perceive these icons as more rewarding. Our results demonstrate that even if people perceive social smartphone apps as more rewarding than nonsocial apps, this may not manifest in behavior.
Over a hundred prior studies show that reward-related distractors capture attention. It is less clear, however, whether and when reward-related distractors affect performance on tasks that require cognitive control. In this experiment, we examined whether reward-related distractors impair performance during a demanding arithmetic task. Participants (N = 81) solved math problems, while they were exposed to task-irrelevant stimuli that were previously associated with monetary rewards (vs. not). Although we found some evidence for reward learning in the training phase, results from the test phase showed no evidence that reward-related distractors harm cognitive performance. This null effect was invariant across different versions of our task. We examined the results further with Bayesian analyses, which showed positive evidence for the null. Altogether, the present study showed that reward-related distractors did not harm performance on a mental arithmetic task. When considered together with previous studies, the present study suggests that the negative impact of reward-related distractors on cognitive control is not as straightforward as it may seem, and that more research is needed to clarify the circumstances under which reward-related distractors harm cognitive control.