I wrote earlier about an experiment that Daniel Kahneman discusses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow where college students were asked to evaluate their life and asked to count the number of dates they had been on in the last month. When the question about dates came after the question about happiness, there was no correlation between the two answers. However, when the question about dating came before the question about happiness, those who had few dates tended to rank their overall happiness lower. Later in the book, Kahneman expands on ideas related to this finding and describes the focusing illusion.
Kahneman sums up the focusing illusion by writing, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”
Our brains are limited. They can only hold so much information at one time. What you see is all there is, meaning that the things you directly observe become the reality that your mind works within. We use heuristics, make assumptions, and our thoughts are subject to biases. As a result, the things we pay attention to and think about become the center of our lives. They become more important in our minds than they really should be.
The dating and happiness questions help us see the machinery of the mind and help us understand how the brain works. The inner machinery of the mind really does overweight things that we happen to be thinking about. Having more or fewer dates is an important worry for college students, but making students think about their dating life before or after a question about overall happiness shouldn’t really influence the degree to which students rate their overall happiness. However, if the mind is forced to think about dating, it becomes a more important factor in the mind and begins to blend into other considerations.
I have seen this happen in my own life. Objectively, I have had a great life. I was raised by a great family in a safe neighborhood in the United States. But at times I was certainly one of those college students whose subjective rating of life was unreasonably influenced by things that shouldn’t have mattered very much. Whether it was not having enough dates, watching the University’s basketball team lose, or having an angry customer at the restaurant I worked at, I can look back and recognize times when I had a negative outlook on life that stemmed from small negative events that I focused on too deeply. I still do this today, but being aware of the focusing illusion and understanding that what you see is all there is has helped me to avoid focusing too deeply and giving too much important to events or opinions that shouldn’t dominate my outlook on life.