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Focusing Illusions

focusing illusions

My favorite chapter in the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher is called ‘Decisions: Focusing Illusions.’ It’s a really great summary of how focusing on the wrong things affects the weights we use to make decisions. There is a lot of great content packed into this chapter but I’ll attempt to highlight a few points.

Bounded Rationality

According to the principle of ‘bounded rationality,’ which (Daniel) Kahneman first applied to economic decisions and more recently to choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our ‘cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Loss/Risk Aversion

If you’re pondering a choice that involves risk, you might focus too much on the threat of possible loss, thereby obscuring an even likelier potential benefit. Where this common scenario is concerned, research shows that we aren’t so much risk-averse as loss-averse, in that we’re generally much more sensitive to what we might have to give up than to what we might gain.

The Focusing Illusion

The key to understanding why you pay more attention to your thoughts about living than to life itself is neatly summed up by what Kahneman proudly calls his ‘fortune cookie maxim’ (a.k.a the focusing illusion): ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Why? ‘Because you’re thinking about it!

In one much-cited illustration of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Because the climate is often delightful there, most subjects thought so. For the same reason, even Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. When Kahneman actually measured their well-being however, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99 percent of the stuff of life – relationships, work, home, recreation – is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about it’s climate very much. If you’re prompted to evaluate it, however, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. This illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

To test the fortune cookie rule, you have only to ask yourself how happy you are. The question automatically summons your remembering self, which will focus on any recent change in your life – marriage or divorce, new job or home. You’ll then think about this novel event, which in turn will increase its import and influence your answer. If you’re pleased that you’ve just left the suburbs for the city, say, you’ll decide that life is pretty good. If you regret the move, you’ll be dissatisfied in general. Fifteen years on, however, the change that looms so large now will pale next to a more recent event – a career change, perhaps or becoming a grandparent – which will draw your focus and, simply because you’re thinking about it, bias your evaluation of your general well-being.

The Effects of Adaptation

Like focusing too much on the opinions of your remembering self, overlooking the effects of adaptation – the process of becoming used to a situation – can obstruct wise decisions about how to live. As Kahneman says, ‘when planning for the future, we don’t consider that we will stop paying attention to a thing.

The tendency to stop focusing on a particular event or experience over time, no matter how wonderful or awful, helps explain why the differences in well-being between groups of people in very different circumstances tend to be surprisingly small – sometimes astoundingly so. The classic examples are paraplegics and lottery winners, who respectively aren’t nearly as miserable or happy as you’d think. ‘That’s where attention comes in,’ says Kahneman. ‘People think that if they win the lottery, they’ll be happy forever. Of course, they will not. For a while, they are happy because of the novelty, and because they think about winning all the time. Then they adapt and stop paying attention to it.’ Similarly, he says, ‘Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be, but they are not paraplegic full-time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends, the newspaper. It has to do with the allocation of attention.’

Like couples who’ve just fallen in love, professionals starting a career, or children who go to camp for the first time, paraplegics and lottery winners initially pay a lot of attention to their new situation. Then, like everybody else, they get used to it and shift their focus to the next big thing. Their seemingly blase attitude surprises us, because when we imagine ourselves in their place, we focus on how we’d feel at the moment of becoming paralyzed or wildly rich, when such an event utterly monopolizes one’s focus. We forget that we, too, would get used to wealth, a wheelchair, and most other things under the sun, then turn our attention elsewhere.

Good Enough

Finally, don’t worry if the choice you made wasn’t the absolute best, as long as it meets your needs. Offering the single most important lesson from his research, Schwartz says, ‘Good enough is almost always good enough. If you have that attitude, many problems about decisions and much paralysis melt away.’