Decisions: Focusing Illusions

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is among the developers of “bounded rationality”. To choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our “cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Kahneman makes a distinction between two concepts of self. There is our hands-on “experiencing self,” which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without doing much analysis. However, our evaluative “remembering self,” looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately. Much research shows that memory is biased and unpredictable—more like a patchwork quilt than the seamless tapestry of reality we likely imagine. We don’t so much recall something that happened as reconstruct a facsimile of it. This mental artifact is likely to be either more positive or negative in tone than was the actual event.

The differences in how our experiencing and remembering selves pay attention to may account for seeing paradoxes in our lives. For example, most subjects say that having children is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. But subjects’ diaries show that actual roll-up-your-sleeves parenting was among women’s least enjoyable activities. This apparent contradiction and others likely are explained by the divergent focuses of a person’s two selves. The experiencing self of a tired woman who’s contemplating the wreckage of her slovenly adolescent’s room might well give mothering a poor rating at the moment. However, if parenthood comes up later at a party, her remembering self zeroes in its emotional highs and long term results—that sweet poem on Mother’s Day, the soccer trophy, the college diploma.—rather than on momentary vexations like dirty socks and old pizza crusts. It’s just as well for their progeny that when adults make choices about how to live, they pay more attention to the remembering self’s judgmental voice than to the experiencing self’s “whispers, which say more about their own daily satisfactions.

In a much cited example of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Most people thought so because of the climate. Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. However, when Kahneman actually measured their well-being, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99% of the stuff of life, relationships, work, home, recreation, is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about its climate very much. However, when prompted to evaluate it, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. The illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

Because our remembering self pays attention to our thoughts about our life, rather than to the life itself, it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of our own experience accurately . Social psychologist Norman Schwartz asked one group of subjects, “How much pleasure do you get from your car? Not surprisingly, there was a significant correlation between an autos value and its owner’s perceived enjoyment, so that the remembering selves of BMW and Lexus drivers were more satisfied than those of people who drove Escorts and Camry’s. Then Schwarz probed the immediate reality of the experiencing self by asking another group of subjects a different question: ”How much pleasure did you get from using your car today?” The correlation between the owners’ satisfaction and their cars’ worth vanished. What determined their answers was not the quality or price of their vehicles but of their actual commute that day: whether it was marked by good or bad weather, traffic conditions, or even personal ruminations— in short the experiencing self’s quotidian ups and downs.

The focusing illusion predicts that we’ll exaggerate the importance of a thing just by thinking it about it, as when we ponder a big purchase. Kahneman says, There’s probably much less focusing illusion with pleasures like fresh flowers or a glass of wine.” Because it gives you more fun and bang for you buck, spending five hundred dollars a year on bouquets or Burgundy is a better investment in your well-being than upgrading a major appliance.

Based on recent research on well-being, Kahneman says, “I can imagine a future in which, just as many of us exercise physically, we’ll also exercise mentally for twenty or thirty minutes a day. That’s the kind of world ‘positive psychology’ is looking for. Whether its principles work or not in the long run, I don’t know. All the data aren’t in yet. But it’s clear that getting people to pay attention is a good thing. There’s no question about that.”

As to the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over our experience and well-being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lamai and positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

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