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How often do you remind yourself of the focusing illusion?

Today is March 23 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you remind yourself of the focusing illusion?” The focusing illusion is also known as the focusing effect and is a cognitive bias that occurs when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event, causing an error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.

In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the 2002 Nobel Prize recipient in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, discussed his concept of the focusing illusion and defined it as meaning “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” To identify the focusing illusion you have to think hard. Since people “are not accustomed to thinking hard, they are often content to trust a plausible judgment that quickly comes to mind.”

An often-used illustration of this is the weather and how people perceive their happiness in relation to it. For those who view life through the focusing illusion lens, they equate their happiness with warm weather and beautiful sunshine. But such a belief is merely one view of understanding the relationship between happiness and the weather. If you are aware that ‘nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it,’ then you realize how the weather has little if anything to do with your happiness.

Kahneman commented further on the focusing illusion and outlined contributing factors, namely the combination of over confidence coupled with ignorance so often practiced by people. As he wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow “We focus on our goal, anchor on our plan, and neglect relevant base rates, exposing ourselves to the planning fallacy. We focus on what we want to do and can do, neglecting the plans and skills of others. Both in explaining the past and in predicting the future, we focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck. We are therefore prone to an illusion of control. We focus on what we know and neglect what we do not know, which makes us overly confident in our beliefs.”

He applied the focusing illusion to education and wrote, “Education is an important determinant of income—one of the most important—but it is less important than most people think.” Perhaps, nowhere is the focusing illusion more apparent than in the discussion between one’s college major and future earnings income potential. Evidence suggests little correlation between one’s level of education or academic major and long-term income potential. “In one recent survey over 90 percent of employers agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas concluded that “Perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student’s ability, achievement, and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major.” Focusing solely on education prevents the consideration of the myriad of other factors that determine income. When you fall into the focusing illusion trap you believe that one degree is better to have than another. When you realize “that nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it” you can accept the fact that no one degree is necessarily better than another when moving up the corporate ladder or earning potential.

This focusing illusion has a very personal application as well. Actor Bradley Cooper provides one example. In an April 2013 interview published in GQ, Cooper discussed the complicated relationship he had with his father who had passed away two years earlier in 2011 after battling lung cancer. "For the first seven years of being in this industry,” Cooper reflected, “I had no confidence whatsoever. It was not until I stopped caring about things, about two years ago when my father passed away. You can be one of those people who says, 'I have perspective,' but then, all of a sudden your parent dies and that gives you an entirely different perspective. Death became very real.”

Recognizing the impact of his father, Cooper recognized “my father gave me two gifts - having me and dying with me. I used to be the kid that got the shakes if I had to talk in public; now, I just don't get nervous about stuff. I can't control everything. I watched my father die and realized this is the way we are all going to die. For me, it was a switch from knowing something intellectually to knowing it by tangibly experiencing it. It rewired my neurological system. It almost did the opposite of motivating me. It was about keeping the main thing the main thing."

  • How often do you remind yourself that ‘nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it?’

  • How often do you remind yourself to do the hard work required to think?

  • Why do you think so many people fall victim to the focusing illusion and think that one’s college major is directly linked to future income earnings?

  • How often do you remind yourself that so many external factors play a role in your success; therefore, you truly are unable to control everything?

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