Focusing Effect (Cognitive Bias #8)

July 19, 2006

This is the tendency to compare two things based on one dimension rather than taking all dimensions into consideration.  For example, if you currently dislike your job because it has a terrible commute and someone offers you a job that’s within walking distance of your house, you may be susceptible to thinking the second job is therefore better.

At first glance, it appears that the thing you hate about your current job doesn’t exist in the new one, and therefore you would be happier there.  Of course, there are many other things that could contribute to the second job being better or worse than the first one.  We tend to conduct comparisons along one axis and assume that all other things are equal.  This is obviously a silly tactic.

If you tend to focus on the negative, the focusing effect can create a downward spiral of negative thinking.  By focusing on a negative aspect of your current situation, many other things that you don’t have will always look like they’re better… from which the term “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” is coined.  You begin to see yourself as an unlucky or lower person than others.

If you tend to focus on the positive, the focusing effect can create an attitude of complacency and stability.  Everything will seem worse (or potentially worse) than your current situation, so you will never change jobs, never move to a new city, never meet new people, simply because you imagine the rest of the world’s experiences to be slightly or drastically worse than your own.

Which of these two sides of the focusing effect bias coin do you land on?  I think I’m probably more on the negative side, thinking things could always be better… but at the same time I’m optimistic that I could reach those better things if I simply focused more.

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One Response to “Focusing Effect (Cognitive Bias #8)”

  1. Bal Says:

    You pose a very legitimate observation and then fall into the trap of your own making within this very post. Why must you fall on one side or the other of this apparent dichotomy? Neither by itself brings out depth in life.

    Perhaps deciding whether or not to quit a toxic job to go to another job (wonderful or otherwise) doesn’t comprise the only option. Maybe other “non-job” options could be found would one look for them.

    Or maybe you could have a job+ situation or a job- situation. You might never find out without looking.

    Of course, if money is short and you have obligations, maybe creative looking takes a secondary position, but even so, it costs little to *look*.

    I enjoy your blog.

    Kind Regards,
    Bal Simon


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