What it is:
Have you been subjected to this nifty party trick? A person at the party claims to be able to read your psychology from manipulating your hand.
He presses your thumb backward, and says, “Hmm, you look like you’re often stubborn.” You’re surprised – it is true!
Later, you cross paths again. This time, he presses the thumb back and says, “You’re a surprisingly flexible person.” And that seems true too. You can think of several instances when you demonstrated surprising flexibility.
So which is it? Probably neither. You, my friend, have been subjected to the focusing illusion.
Just like the respondents to a question, “Are you adventurous?” in a research study. 97% said “yes”.
When you think of or focus on something, your subconscious assumes it’s important. After all, why would you think about it otherwise?
It’s recursive logic, with a healthy dollop of confirmation bias.
You focus on it, therefore it’s worth focusing on.
Examples in business (and elsewhere):
What you focus on seems important.
- When you’re fundraising, it seems like make-or-break for your startup. But it isn’t. Money from customers, not investors, will drive success for you. If you’re building something useful, you’ll find a way.
- You commit a silly mistake at work on Friday evening, and then you’re in torment all weekend. But your boss – he barely notices it on Monday morning. It wasn’t that important after all.
- “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Fading movie stars crave it – at least it gives them presumed importance in the public’s eyes.
What you focus on seems true.
- The positive test: In deciding whether a possibility is correct, we look for hits rather than misses. Just like the adventurous respondents in the survey above, we can be flexible or stubborn. It depends on the question. This kind of one-sided question (e.g., asking only whether you’re dissatisfied about a situation), is called a positive test. Beware when you hear such a question – maybe your counterpart wants to send you down a specific line of thought.
- Medical students and their diseases: It’s common for medical students to feel they’ve contracted the latest disease they’ve heard about. They read that pneumonia produces pain in a particular place, concentrate attention on it, and get alarmed at the slightest sensation. This is so common, there’s an aphorism for it in medicine:
“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”
- If 2016’s Brexit and US presidential campaigns have taught us anything, it’s this: Say anything often enough, and people will think it’s true.
- This is also why the Myers-Briggs personality test is meaningless.
What you focus on seems causal.
- Offer people a lot of money to do something, and they’ll do it for free. The listener automatically assumes the task is very important to you. (That’s why you’re willing to pay so much!). Try this the next time you’re trying to jump ahead in line.
- The most visible action is assumed to be causal: When a company misses its projections, newspapers attribute it to a recent government announcement. Or a tepid product launch to a bad ad campaign.
Rules to follow:
How do we save ourselves from the focusing illusion?
- Don’t make big decisions in the heat of the moment. It’s quite likely you’re overestimating the importance of a couple of factors. Calm down, sleep on it, and make the decision later.
- Beware of one-sided questions. It’s quite likely that your counterpart is priming you towards an answer they prefer.
- Whenever you’re making a big decision, do a premortem. Make sure to think about what could go wrong, and protect against it.
- In summary, remember Kahneman’s adage: Nothing is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it.
- Pre-suasion: I first read about the focusing illusion in this excellent book.
- Daniel Kahneman on the focusing illusion in Edge.org.
Filed Under: Psychology & Human Behavior