Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Category Archives: Culture

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.’

Christopher Hitchens on Freedom of Speech

Profoundly provocative.

It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear, and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.

Indeed as John Stuart Mill said: if all of society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important, that that one heretic be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.

Hitchens attitude toward whether others agreed with him bears noting.

… I can’t find a seconder when I propose this but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder, my own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time, and anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in a line and kiss my ass.

(Here is an an MP3 version)

The Filter Bubble — What the Internet is Hiding From You

Just “googling it” might not be such a great idea after all.

The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, puts forth an argument that we’re increasingly trapped inside an algorithm that filters our news based on what it thinks is best for us.

Computers and the algorithms they run are increasingly aware of the things we seem to like. These algorithms even tailor results so we get more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. That means two people googling the same thing are likely to see different results.

The problem with this, Pariser argues, is that you’re not making a conscious choice to have your results filtered — it happens without your knowledge or consent. And that causes a whole host of issues, of which Pariser is primarily concerned with the social and political implications.

When technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.

“If we want to know what the world really looks like,” Pariser writes, “we have to understand how filters shape and skew our view of it.” It’s useful to borrow from nutrition to illustrate this point:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Consider for a moment where we are headed. If Google knows that I’m a democrat or republican they could now add a filter to my news to show me only the stories I’m predisposed to agree with. Based on their guess as to my education level, they may then tailor the article’s words and language to maximize its impact on me. In this world I only see things I agree with and writing that I easily comprehend and that’s a problem. Google might know that I don’t read anything about republican tax cuts or democratic spending so they might just filter those articles out. Reality, as I see it, becomes what the lens shows me.

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
—Andrew Lewis

When asked about the prospects for important but unpopular news, Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte smiled. On one end of the spectrum, he said is sycophantic personalization — “you’re so great and wonderful, and I’m going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.” On the other end is the parental approach: “I’m going to tell you this whether you want to hear this or not, because you need to know.” Currently, he argues, we’re headed in sycophantic direction.

Whether you believe the book’s conclusions are wholly convincing or not, it is worth thinking about. If nothing else, it is thought-provoking.

(If you want a search engine that won’t “track you” try DuckDuckGo.com)

Society and the Ability to Survive

Jared Diamond is the guru of collapse. Collapse is the title of one of the books that have made him a world-famous academic. It is a theme that captures the Zeitgeist: markets have collapsed, banks have collapsed and confidence, even in the capitalist system itself, has collapsed.

Humans’ ability to destroy the basis of their own livelihood is a recurring Diamond theme.

“There is a parallel based on the same fundamental mechanisms of the economic collapse that we’re seeing now and the collapse of past civilisations such as the Maya,” he continues. “The message is that when you have a large society that consumes lots of resources, that society is likely to collapse once it hits its peak.”

“The Maya collapse began in the late 700s, and then simply the most advanced society in the New World collapsed over the course of several decades. They were mostly gone a century later,” he says wistfully. “When a complex structure like that starts collapsing, you are pulling out dominoes in the whole structure.”

Much of Diamond’s writing suggests that only those societies able to stamp out unsustainable habits – over-logging, overspending, over-extension – have the ability to survive.

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.


Can’t humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we’ll get around water by desalinating sea water.’ But then there’s the energy ceiling, and so on.”

Full article.

Still curious? Diamond is the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Guns, Germs, And Steel.