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The Focusing Illusion
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Author:  DWill [ Thu Oct 15, 2015 8:07 am ]
Post subject:  The Focusing Illusion

This topic might not seem science-related, but it does come from a book I've been reading called This Will Make You Smarter, a book of about a hundred short essays mostly by scientists. Anyway, one that has really lodged in my mind is by Daniel Kahneman. It's not technical at all and very simple, yet I'm wondering if it has very wide application and explanatory power. See what you think.

Kahneman begins with examples that show how focusing on single factors often leads us to arrive at false, or at least incomplete, answers and solutions. Education deficits don't account for income inequality, money doesn't account for some people's greater happiness, paraplegia isn't a sentence to a miserable life. "When we think of what it is like to be a paraplegic, or a lottery winner, or a resident of California, we focus on the distinctive aspects of each of these conditions. This mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion."

Kahneman notes that marketers are expert at exploiting the focusing illusion. This car will make your self-esteem go through the roof. This olive oil shows you're a sophisticate. "Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States--either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it."

When we talk about good vs. poor thinking, it's difficult for us to consider this matter Kahneman points out, which is one of proportionality. What we say about a particular subject may be valid by evidence we can reasonably site, but our emphasis on its overall importance in a wider scheme may be misplaced. This may be the case in the instance of religion, where both its presence and its lack are purported by opposite sides to be hugely significant for society and a big separating feature between individuals. There is so much more to a society than this one institution, and so many more points of commonality between people than what one believes about God.

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