Ha ha, Ian I like your 12m distraction example -- and it is actually the same principle as "no touch" throws. You ARE disturbing his intent and he is reacting instinctively due to your distraction. Disturbing ones' center or balance is not ONLY about physical balance. Atemi in Aikido is almost always used to disturb your opponents' intent and to cause him to "react" in a way that is beneficial to you (rather than you "reacting" to what he wants to do to you).
And the truth is, that very few of our instinctive reactions are very self-preserving.
Falling is the greatest example of this. People hurt themselves all the time falling, because without learning the proper way to fall (i.e. ukemi) our instinctive methods are terrible. We twist, turn and contort our bodies in all sorts of unnatural positions in order to "not fall", which in the end make us fall funny (and thus injury occurs).
And yes, "no touch" falls work in the dojo because we are trained to react in a way to protect our self (replacing inferior instinctive movement is what martial arts training is all about). But like I said "no touch" techniques are just a training device -- just like one-finger throws, and using those training devices and being aware of the principles of what makes them work will improve all of your Aikido.
Don't caught up in the "trick" aspect; see past the trick to the principle.
Unbendable arm, not being able to be pushed over in suwari-waza, etc. all get used to amaze your friends, but those tricks rely on sound principles.