The Focusing-Effect: Why We End Up Making the Wrong Decisions

the focusing-effect

Making the right decisions is difficult for many reasons. The focusing-effect is one of them.

When we make decisions, we often get very focused on certain aspects of the decision. This article describes this tendency (=the focusing-effect) in detail and the research surrounding it.

The focusing-effect (bias) is the fact that people make decisions on the basis of the most pronounced and distinct information they have available in their working memory, and for this reason, other pieces of possibly useful information are excluded. So, the decision is only based on fractions of the total amount of knowledge or information that one has stored.

Cherubini and colleagues (2003) examined the focusing-effect in greater detail to see if we really are as biased  in our decision-making as Legrenzi and colleagues (1993) once proposed (guess not!).

In contrast to Legrenzi’s belief that only explicit alternatives are considered, this study found that the explicit alternatives are neither sufficient nor necessary to focus one’s attention.

It seems like people do not focus on an explicit alternative if that alternative is well-known to them. When the alternative is well-known, then they focus on other alternatives that have not even been mentioned nor suggested by the situation itself.

Overall, the findings suggest that the amount of information linked to each alternative is likely to determine how much the alternative influences the decision.

For example, if we already know a proper solution to a problem due to our experience, then this solution influences our decision-making to a greater extent than if the solution is not as proper or useful.

If the explicit alternatives lack informative value (e.g., novel problems that have not been solved before), we build up information to make new explicit models.

As as result, we do not only consider explicitly available information, because we also seek new solutions if the already known ones are not good enough or irrelevant. So, it seems like the focusing-effect is not as profound as Legrenzi and his colleagues thought it was.

Evidence of the focusing-effect

Schkade & Kahneman (1998) found that people focus on the most notable differences when they make predictions about happiness. The authors propose this on the basis of self-reports.

When people were asked, how much they believed that Californians were more happy than Mid-westerners,  both Californians and Mid-westerns reported that Californians were happier, but the study did not find such a difference in measured happiness.

These findings reflect the focusing-effect in that people overestimate the positive influences of sunny weather, and the easy-going lifestyle of Californians. Interestingly, other aspects of life such as low crime rates, and safety from earth quakes were not considered in the process of decision-making due to the focusing-effect.

Daniel Kahneman and colleagues (2006) have suggested that people consistently overestimate the value of money on happiness due to the focusing-effect. In fact, income increases only show small and short-term effects on happiness and well-being.

The study also suggests that people with incomes above average are barely happier in moment-to-moment experiences; they tend to be more tense; and they do not spend more time in enjoyable activities.

Because of the focusing-effect, people tend to focus on conventional measures of happiness such as the disposal of money, and as a result, they exaggerate the effects of income on happiness.

So, watch out for the focusing-effect when you make decisions! Thanks for reading.

Image: Lori Greig
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