The Focusing Illusion

Let’s say an advertisement or a news article points out some new gadget or new kitchen appliance or new restaurant that you haven’t experienced yet. This advertisement or news article makes this thing that you’ve not experienced sound like it’s positively incredible and that you’re missing out on something potentially life-changing by missing it.

Over the next few days, you hear about this new thing two or three more times and it begins to rest in your mind a little bit, popping up every once in a while when your thoughts are idle.

You replay all of the great stuff you’ve heard about this new thing and you transpose it into your life. You begin to visualize how you could have a truly great evening at this restaurant, one that might rekindle a relationship. You begin to see how this gadget could be useful many times a day in your life and help spur you on to greater career options – and a bit of awe from your friends, too. You think about yourself preparing a great recipe in the kitchen using that new appliance.

Soon, you want that item. You really, really want it. You become really focused on it, so eventually you splurge. You buy the item or you go to the restaurant or you indulge in whatever this thing you’re focusing on is.

Sure, it ends up being good, but it usually ends up falling short of the many wonderful traits you’ve assigned to it in your head. Rather than being great, it’s merely good, and so you end up convincing yourself that “good” is good enough.

Before long, the cycle repeats itself.

You can run through this cycle with pretty much any consumer product you can imagine. You hear about it a time or two, mostly in glowing terms. You begin to think about it a bit and visualize how great this thing will be in your life and how it will improve things. The images you make up for yourself are unrealistic, but they’re so appealing that eventually you splurge. It’s good, but it’s not great, and so life goes on.

This is a well-known psychological effect; it’s called the “focusing illusion.” As Wikipedia describes it:

The focusing effect (or focusing illusion) is a cognitive bias that occurs when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event, causing an error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.

How does this work?

People focus on notable differences, excluding those that are less conspicuous, when making predictions about happiness or convenience. For example, when people were asked how much happier they believe Californians are compared to Midwesterners, Californians and Midwesterners both said Californians must be considerably happier, when, in fact, there was no difference between the actual happiness rating of Californians and Midwesterners. The bias lies in that most people asked focused on and overweighed the sunny weather and ostensibly easy-going lifestyle of California and devalued and underrated other aspects of life and determinants of happiness, such as low crime rates and safety from natural disasters like earthquakes (both of which large parts of California lack).

In other words, when we compare things, we often focus in on a small handful of the relevant details out of the much larger set of details that are truly important.

Marketers know all about the focusing effect, so they’ll make sure to show us just a handful of relevant details about an item – ones that are most easily blown up in our minds to make something that’s merely good seem like something amazing and transformative.

I’ve found that only two things are really successful in overcoming the focusing illusion, at least for me.

First, I research my purchases as thoroughly as possible. Sure, I might get excited about an item when I first hear about it and I only know a few details, but I know there’s more to the story than that.

I dig in. I try to find out as much about the item in question as I can. I particularly look for negative perspectives on this item.

Most of the time, I’ll end up adding enough details to the mix that the details I focus on aren’t all positive, making it easier to turn away from the item.

At the same time, I focus on what I already have that takes care of what this product promises. Do I really need this product if I already have two or three things around that take care of the use cases?

Generally, I’m not interested in buying something unless it can be clearly shown to me that it somehow does something truly new that I couldn’t do before or that it does something truly better than items I already have. Most of the time, if you take apart the images you have of using the new thing and think about what you have that can already do this stuff, the new thing really doesn’t seem all that transformative.

Still, the focusing illusion is quite powerful and it can really convince people that they need things that they don’t really need at all. Look for that illusion in your own life and, if you see it, quash it. It mostly just costs you money.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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