I find the focusing illusion as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to be fascinating because it reveals how strange our actual thinking is. I am constantly baffled by the way that our brains continuously and predictably makes mistakes. The way we think about, interpret, and understand the world is not based on an objective reality, but is instead based on what our brain happens to be focused on at any given time. As Kahneman writes, what you see is all there is, and the focusing illusion is a product of our brain’s limited ability to take in information combined with the brain’s tendency to substitute difficult and complex questions for more simple questions.
In the book, Kahneman asks us to think about the overall happiness of someone who recently moved from Ohio to California and also asks us to think about the amount of time that paraplegics spend in a bad mood. In both situations, we make a substitution. We know that people’s overall happiness and general moods are comprised of a huge number of factors, but when we think about the two situations, we focus in on a couple of simple ideas.
We assume the person from Ohio is happier in California because the weather in California is always perfect while Ohio experiences cold winters. The economic prospects in California might be better than Ohio, and there are more movie stars and surfing opportunities. Without knowing anything about the person, we probably assume the California move made them happier overall (especially given the additional context and priming based on the weather and jobs prospects that Kahneman presents in the example in his book).
For our assumptions about the paraplegic, we likely go the other way with our thoughts. We think about how we would feel if we were in an accident and lost the use of our legs or arms. We assume their life must be miserable, and that they spend much of their day in a bad mood. We don’t make a complex consideration of the individual’s life or ask more information about them, we just make an assumption based on limited information by substituting in the question, “How would I feel if I became paralyzed.” Of course, people who are paralyzed or lose the function of part of their body are still capable of a full range of human emotions, and might still find happiness in their lives in many areas.
Kahneman writes, “The focusing illusion can cause people to be wrong about their present state of well-being as well as about the happiness of others, and about their own happiness in the future.”
We often say that it is important that we know ourselves and that we be true to ourselves if we want to live healthy and successful lives. But research throughout Thinking Fast and Slow shows us how hard it can be. After reading Kahneman’s book, learning about Nudges from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and learning how poorly we process risk and chance from Gerd Gigerenzer, I constantly doubt how much I can really know about myself, about others, or really about anything. I am frustrated when people act on intuition, sure of themselves and their ideas in complex areas such as economics, healthcare, or education. I am dismayed by advertisements, religions, and political parties that encourage us to act tribally and to trust our instincts and intuitions. It is fascinating that we can be so wrong about something as personal as our own happiness. It is fascinating that we can be so biased in our thinking and judgement, and that we can make conclusions and assumptions about ourselves and others with limited information and not even notice how poorly our thought processes are. I love thinking about and learning about the biases and cognitive errors of our mind, and it makes me pause when I am sure of myself and when I think that I am clearly right and others are wrong. After all, if what you see is all there is, then your opinions, ideas, and beliefs are almost certainly inadequate to actually describe the reality you inhabit.