Focusing Illusion Problem

The Focusing Illusion Problem is “a cognitive bias — a tendency to misjudge — that leads to attaching too much significance to one feature of an event or situation.” – Schkade 1998

I read this in the context of cognitive biases that lead product managers to make poor decisions. But then, a cognitive bias applies to all areas of life.

Here are some examples:

  • Couples who’ve just fallen in love – pay a lot of attention to their partner earlier. Then, maybe start focusing on family and career.
  • New grads just starting out their career – pay a lot of attention to their career earlier. Then, maybe start focusing on relationships and travel.
  • A person affected by paralysis – pays a lot of attention to their situation earlier. Then, maybe start focusing more on friends and hobbies.
  • People who win a lottery – pay a lot of attention to money earlier. Then, maybe start focusing on fulfillment and relationships.

As time goes on, they all get used to their new situation and shift the focus to the next big thing.

But when we look from outside, their shift in focus surprises us. When we imagine ourselves in their place, “we focus on how we’d feel at the moment of becoming paralyzed or wildly rich, when such an event utterly monopolizes one’s focus.”

We forget that we, too, would get used to wealth, a wheelchair, and most other things under the sun, then turn our attention elsewhere.

That’s a cognitive bias that leads us to attach too much significance to only one feature of the complex event or situation.

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