What Determines Where You Place Your Attention?

What determines where you place your attention? It turns out that we attach undue weight to what is salient in the moment: Anything that draws attention to itself can lead us to overestimate its importance.

Key Takeaway

Whatever catches our attention in the moment becomes important. This is called the “focusing illusion” and can affect all aspects of our life, without our awareness. Sometimes, what has caught our attention is important, such as a strange noise in the night or the smell of smoke, which can save our life. But, it can lead us to the mistaken belief that something is important simply because we have been led to give it attention by something irrelevant, such as media coverage. Sometimes, the “something irrelevant” are our own thoughts: We suddenly think of something that is not relevant to the task at hand and we go off on a tangent.

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This brings us to the focusing illusion, a cognitive bias that makes us prone to exaggerate the importance of whatever we are focusing on in the moment and affects all aspects of our lives. When Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences, was asked to identify one scientific concept that would most improve people's understanding of the world, he summarized the focusing illusion as "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it."

After I bought my Mini Cooper I started to see Mini Coopers everywhere. Had Mini Coopers suddenly become popular? When I was pregnant, I saw pregnant women on every street corner: It seemed as if all young women were pregnant! Have you had similar experiences? These are just a few examples of the focusing illusion: that what catches our attention becomes important. At least important enough for it to catch our attention.

If you think that all your decisions are rational, the focusing illusion shows you that this is not true: Its effects can be insidious.

The focusing illusion is exploited successfully by the media, by marketers, and even by politicians. When you go into a grocery store, you are more likely to buy the brand in the middle of a display of brands. Marketers know that the item in the centre gets more visual attention than those to the left or right. It’s this greater attention that predicts whether you’ll buy the item.

Topics that the media focus on affect our perception of importance. Before the US presidential election that brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968, for example, undecided voters were asked to rank political issues according to their importance. The voters ranked as most important those political issues that had received the most attention in the media! The relationship between media coverage and perceived importance of a topic was due in part because the coverage caused the perceived importance, not the other way around. And, when participants were randomly assigned to watch news shows that covered different issues, they had significantly elevated the importance of the topics most featured on the shows they watched. 

Investors rush to buy financial investments that have been covered by the media which jump in price immediately but then decline as media attention wanes over time.

Sometimes, what we are focusing on in the moment really is important.

Why do we typically assume that whatever we are focusing on in the moment is important? Sometimes, it really is important. There are evolutionary benefits to bringing our attention to out-of-the-ordinary events: Attending to a strange noise in the night or the smell of smoke can save our life.

But this system of focusing our attention on what really is important can lead us to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led to give it attention by something irrelevant, such as media coverage. Around the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of  September 11, 2001 in the US, the media published a spate of 9/11-related stories. When people were asked, two weeks before the media started to publish the 9/11-related stores, to name two ‘especially important’ events from the past seventy years, only 30% of people named 9/11. But when the media coverage intensified and the anniversary of 9/11 approached, 65% of people named 9/11 as being ‘especially important’. Two weeks later, after media coverage about 9/11 died down, the number of people who named 9/11 as especially important returned to 30%. Here, the media coverage, something that is irrelevant to whether we should be judging something as important, led people to define it as important.

Sometimes, it's our own thoughts that lead us to attend to something that is irrelevant.

Sometimes, the “something irrelevant” are our own thoughts: We suddenly think of something that is not relevant to the task at hand and we go off on a tangent. I have been wanting to make choux pastry - the kind of pastry used in cream puffs or profiteroles - but the recipe I found last night needed a stand mixer. I don’t have a stand mixer so I have to make it by hand. As I was writing this article, my mind shifted suddenly to the choux pastry and I started to google how to make it by hand. So, even though this is something I did want to do, it was not relevant to the task at hand, I was not planning to start making the pastry right away, and it was not something I needed to search for right now. I was caught by the focusing illusion unawares, even though I’m someone who should have known better!

What can you do to avoid being caught unawares by the focusing illusion?
  • Minimize external distractions: Environmental distractions take our attention off our task at hand. Elementary school classrooms are often highly decorated with posters, maps, and artwork. Yet the research shows that they negatively affect science scores. And reading scores are affected when classrooms are next to elevated subway lines where trains rattle by every few minutes. When New York city installed noise-dampening materials on the tracks and in the classrooms, reading scores improved.
  • Make sure you have, within easy reach, everything you need to be productive. Your attention may be diverted by just getting up to search for something you need.
  • Sometimes, increasing the number of steps between the thought and the action is what’s needed. For example, if you’re trying to watch less television, keep the remote in another room, or at least in a place where you have to get up to get it. The effort itself may make you change your mind. You could also keep your book handy, so you don’t have to go looking for it.
  • Consult a wide variety of media sources. This will help you form your own opinion and make you less susceptible to the focusing illusion.
  • Give it time: Often, just waiting a few seconds before we give into that cookie or drink will work.

Atalay, A. S., Bodur, H. O., and Rasolofoarison, D. (2012). Shining in the centre: Central gaze cascade effect on product choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 848-56.

McCombs, M. E., and Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting functions of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-218.

Engelberg, J., Sasseville, C., and Williams, J. (2102). “Market madness? The case of mad money. Management Science, 58, 351-64.

Corning, A., and Schuman, H. (2013). “Commemoration matters: The anniversaries of 9/11 and Woodstock. Public Opinion Quarterly, 77, 433-54.

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