Focusing Illusions in Decision-Making

Focusing illusion
We talk a lot about the power of focus in business and in our lives. Yet, unless we learn to pay attention to the right things, the act of focusing becomes an illusion and our decisions bear that disconnect.

In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher sets out to help us understand how our minds are powerful tools in sorting wheat from chaff. Providing we train ourselves to see the distinction.

The chapter about decisions and focusing illusions draws on the work on decision-making of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky “made the art of refined query into a science.” She says:

According to the principles of “bonded rationality,” which Kahneman first applied to economic decisions and more recently 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, but by our “cognitive illusions,” or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Facing a choice, for example, you might focus on the quickest, most accessible solution, rather than taking the time to think things through. When making a choice that affects your long-term future, you might mistakenly concentrate on very short-term concerns. “That's why following every detail of your financial situation is a problem, unless you get pleasure from it,” says Kahneman. “If you focus too much on each issue separately, considering each loss and gain in isolation, you make mistakes.”

Our loss aversion overwhelms any thought of gain or benefit from a situation, for example. We also tend to create abstractions when we look to answer questions about our lives. But, says Gallagher:

The problem is that this type of abstract evaluation “isn't looking at how people actually experience their lives,” says Kahneman, “but how they think about their lives. That distinction has been my entry into well-being research.”


How you decide to spend your time and make other choices that affect your quality of life is closely bound up with attention, which “governs how people think about well-being,” Kahneman says, “and also governs the experience.”

Kahneman “points out two ways in which focusing on the wrong thing can skew” our choices:

First, there's a gap between your real life and the stories you tell yourself about it, and you're apt to fixate on the latter. Stressing the importance of this divide, Kahneman says, “Attention both to what you choose to experience and what you choose to think about it is at the very core of how I approach questions of well-being.”

We are thus split into two kinds of selves that pay attention to different things. Our “experiencing self” is the one that thinks in the here and now, our evaluative “remembering self” looks back at what happened, the emotional high points and outcomes to create thinking. The latter is not always accurate — we recall the highlights and not the low moments.

We also consider some things more important when we're prompted to think about them. It can be difficult to evaluate the quality of an experience divorced from the remembering self. Gallagher says:

Unless you're a Zen sage like Yoda, however, shifting  your attention from thinking into being is harder than it might seem at first. For one thing, as soon as you try, you're apt to revert to your remembering self.


Like focusing too much on the opinions of your remembering self, overlooking the effects of adaptation — the process of becoming used to a situation — can obstruct wise decisions about how to live.


This attentional myopia is especially problematic when you're trying to make important decisions about the future.

One reason for poor decision-making is the abundance of choices. Greater choice paralyzes us and makes us poor strategists. We are seduced by having the option of greater selection in goods and access to a wider variety of experiences.

However, when faced with more than 8-10 choices, we either freeze or give up picking any. This is because rather than exercising focus, too many options deplete our cognitive load. As Schwarz says, “good enough is almost always good enough.”

How do we overcome myopia in decision-making? Gallagher says:

Remembering that your life is the sum of what you focus on helps you bring clarity to choices about where to spend that valuable mental money.


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