If you asked a large group of students the following questions: (1) “How happy are you with your life in general?” and (2) “How many dates did you have last month?” What do you think the correlation would be? In other words, what impact does the number of dates a student experiences on their happiness? When the study is done, the correlation is statistically insignificant (-0.012) indicating that dates have no impact on a happy student life. Now consider the following two questions: (1) “How many dates did you have last month?” and (2) “How happy are you with your life in general?” Now how will the number of dates correlate with life happiness? Quite well (0.66). This reversal in correlation upon reversing the question order is called the focusing illusion.
In the first set of questions the students had to consider their life in general first. All aspects, positive and negative, had to be added up and averaged out. Dating made up only a tiny fraction of their lifetime experiences and was judged unimportant by the students. In the second set of questions their focus was first drawn to the aspect of their lives devoted to dating, trying to recall the dates they went on over the last month. When asked how happy they were in general, dating was occupying a large amount of their cognitive attention and was a big component of their overall happiness judgment. Similar effects have been observed when asking about marriage, health, income, and location of residence.
If you are entering into a negotiation with someone the focusing illusion can be used to your advantage. By being the first to make your position known, you anchor the likely outcome nearer to your target. In a salary negotiation, for example, when you have in mind a specific amount for a raise – making sure that number comes out early will constrain the range over which the negotiation can roam. Another use, when selling a house, is to set the price as a non-round number. This tactic will limit the negotiation to the lower units making it more likely you will get the price you want. Setting your price at $799,800 will encourage a smaller range of buy offers than setting the price at $800,000. This is because buyers will focus at the $100 unit rather than the $100,000 unit when making counter offers. Priming the people you are dealing with the answer you want makes it more likely you will be pleased with the outcome.
However, there is a darker side to this cognitive bias. Advertisers make use of the focusing illusion and cause us to overestimate the positive impact their products will have on our lives. They show us people making creative use of their items and invite us to image how we would use them ourselves. By focusing our attention on the product we come to believe that it will markedly improve our relationships, happiness, or efficiency when it reality most products will only have a very small impact on our lives. Politicians also love to use the focusing illusion to narrow the window of debate. Rather than conduct a full discussion of the issue and the merits of various alternative solutions, politicians like to forcefully state their solution and then claim there is no other option. The political debate is shifted to the relative merits of the proposed solution only and any alternatives put forward are ridiculed as too radical and unlikely to have the perceived impact that the proposed policy will.
Avoiding the focusing illusion seems to be impossible. In the same way it is impossible not to think of an elephant, once the influencing factor has entered our consciousness it will immediately colour our future perceptions and decisions. If time allows, try to make the decision at a later date when the focusing factor has receded in importance. Another tactic is to shift your focus to concentrate on what isn’t there. If you think about the information that has been left out you may give your conscious mind a more accurate conception of the problem at hand. If an advertiser or politician claims a particular benefit for a product or policy try to think of the things they are not claiming. If their policy will create more jobs why are they not talking about its impact on government revenue? If an advertiser is touting their product is high in vitamins, ask yourself what they might be leaving out about its sugar content. Training in formal argumentation helps but remember that nothing can break the focusing illusion once it is in place. Be on your guard.