Although it usually happens rather unconsciously, you may have noticed that your attention is drawn to very salient events that seem to be responsible for a particular outcome. This phenomenon is known as the focus effect, a psychological concept that has been studied for decades. In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at what exactly the focusing effect is, how it works, and why it can lead you astray.
What is the focusing effect?
The focus effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people concentrate on a particular detail and overlook other things - often resulting in an incorrect judgment or decision. Psychologists found that it usually occurs because we tend to emphasize certain factors when making decisions or forming opinions, overlooking other, irrelevant factors that would - and often enough should - potentially change the outcome.
How does the focusing effect work?
At its core, the focusing effect works by creating a distorted view of reality - we fixate on certain details and certain events to avoid or bring about more. The most common theory is that this behavior is a mechanism of the brain to evaluate and categorize situations and events as efficiently as possible. Thus, complex situations are simplified by focusing on particularly concise indicators that, to all appearances, led to this outcome. Additional information, however, is disregarded.
In this way, the brain can gently deal with the flood of stimuli that hits us every day.
As part of their closer examination of the Focusing Effect, David A. Schkade and Daniel Kahneman in 1998 conducted an Study which refuted the popular belief that Californians are happier than people from the U.S. Midwest.
The study found that people often make judgments based on a limited number of factors, such as the weather and leisure activities, leading to the focusing effect.
The analysis showed that there was no significant difference in happiness levels between the two regions. The study underlines the importance of also taking into account other factors that contribute to happiness, such as the crime rate, safety from natural disasters or even personal relationships.
This study was enormously insightful because it helped debunk myths about happiness and pointed people to a broader set of factors to consider that can influence overall well-being.
A more commonplace example is sports like basketball, where players tend to focus too much on difficult throws rather than easier ones because a difficult throw has been successful in the past or even decided a game.
Why this effect is dangerous
Without a doubt, it makes sense that the Focusing Effect exists. Without this mechanism, we would regularly be overwhelmed when our brain tries to absorb all the information of a situation. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the most noticeable feature is stored as the cause of something.
But the world is an incredibly complex construct and so most events are not due to a single cause, but also a multidimensional network of various influencing factors. In the most extreme case it could even be that the most striking observation has nothing to do with the event or a result and it is completely wrong to store this as a cause.
Understanding how and why the focus effect occurs gives us valuable insight into human nature and, most importantly, the ability to potentially protect ourselves from bad decisions made based on too little or even irrelevant information.
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