The Focusing Illusion Continued

The Focusing Illusion Continued

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.

Considering the Median Centrist Voter

This morning I was listening to a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show and Klein said something interesting in how we think about our politics. Our institutions have their own memories, which are formed and created often by the memories and available histories of the institutions members. In politics today, we have an institutional memory of a time roughly after World War II where a lot seemed to be accomplished and we seemed to be less polarized. This view is our baseline for evaluating political function (or dysfunction) and it includes an idea of a rational moderate voter with both parties trying to adjust their platforms to capture a greater marginal share of this undecided moderate electorate.

 

This institutional memory (whether it is correct/accurate or not) is not what we see in our political system today. We act as if it should be the norm, but it is long gone and we are left with complaints about the loss of this ideal system. Tyler Cowen writes the following about our electorate and perceptions of our electoral system in his book The Complacent Class,

 

“Core government programs are still backed by most voters, but political change at the margins seems to result from complex battles among lobbies, interest groups, financiers, political maneuvering, and who can win public relations campaigns fought in the media. The ideal of the perfectly centrist voter as the ultimate adjudicating force just doesn’t appear that relevant for thinking about a lot of those changes we do observe.”

 

I’m not sure why we still live in a world where we believe that politics should operate in the way we believe it operated almost 70 years ago. Popular media and civics classes present government as ideally functioning in a way that compromises and attempts to sway marginal centrist voters who have not made up their mind. These votes don’t exist, and likely never existed. Better models should be presented and discussed so that we can better evaluate our government and what is or is not taking place within our institutions. By having more honest and open conversations, we can better address the role that identity and policy play in politics (hint: identity is all there is, policy is just a rationalization). Median and moderate voters who have not made up their mind don’t exist in the way we think they used to. They might exist, but more as individuals with identities pulling them in different directions, not as rational voters who are trying to make a decision based on policy outcomes and preferences.

The Undisguised Consciousness

“The unreal disguise of consciousness serves only to emphasize to me the existence of the undisguised unconsciousness.” Fernando Pessoa wrote this in The Book of Disquiet as he reflected on the way that people thought about and moved through the world around him. What Pessoa noted is that we act and behave as though we are consciously making decisions and guiding our lives while in reality we are often driven by unconscious forces that we are not aware of. For Pessoa, life was an every day struggle. He did not live in desolate poverty or have anything particular terrible happening in his life, but was cognizant of the stories people told about their lives and existence, and he could not bring himself to believe any particular story.

 

It seems like most people, most of the time, are not actually that considerate of the world around them. If we all were more considerate, capitalism would not be elevated in the United States to a quasi-religious stance. We would be able to take action on climate change. We probably would spend less time watching what celebrities were doing, and more time participating in a sport rather than watching and talking about other people playing a sport.

 

“Occasional hints that they might be deluding themselves–that and only that is what most men experience.”

 

I have been thinking about consciousness and our experiences quite a bit lately. In Considerations, Colin Wright encouraged us to think more deeply about world, and to see things beyond our initial reaction. Rob Reid has talked to guests in his podcast After On about the reality that our brains don’t sense the world as fully as they potentially could. There are senses we just don’t have that we observe in other living creatures. And in The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which being deluded about reality can be an evolutionary advantage for us.

 

Most people that I meet don’t seem to be interested in thinking beyond their initial reaction to the world. Most people don’t really seem to consider the fact that they have a narrow band of senses through which they can experience the world. And most people don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we evolved to have an inaccurate picture of the universe because it helped us be socially deceptive. But I think it is powerful and important that we recognize how much is going on beyond the recognition of our conscious self. We should strive to have a full existence that helps encourage flourishing for others as well as for ourselves. We should strive to see reality for what it is, and cut through the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell for us. The more considerate we are, the more we can open others to the same reality, and hopefully start to counteract the unconscious immediacy of our reactions to the world which is encouraged by social media and indeed by our brains’ very nature.