Focusing Illusion in politics

Focusing Illusion in politics

🎙️ Podcast

About the episode

The Focusing Illusion, as described by Daniel Kahneman, states: "Nothing in life is as important as we think it is while we are thinking about it."

This concept is relevant in politics in two ways: what we think and talk about, and who we think and talk about. The topics and individuals that receive the most attention become important in our minds, regardless of their actual importance.

There are three implications of the Focusing Illusion:

  • Being aware of what we deem important and not being sidetracked by what is in the news or what others want to talk about.
  • Recognizing our own agency to shape the world around us, rather than solely focusing on those in positions of power.
  • Politicians have a responsibility to shape people's focus and should use this power responsibly. And it's not just other people shaping our attention (think: algorithms).


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Episode transcript

AI transcription, with some human edits

"Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it."

This sentence comes from Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and economist, Nobel Prize winner in economics, author of such books as Thinking Fast and Slow, Noise and Others. And he was asked in 2011 this question. He was asked: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

And his answer was: the Focusing Illusion. And the Focusing Illusion is captured in this one sentence: "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it." Daniel Kahneman recently passed away, end of March 2024, and just give me this idea of talking about this concept and applying it to politics. Daniel Kahneman also applied it and gave examples of how relevant this is in politics. And I wanted to do an episode, a short episode, especially on this concept and why it is relevant in politics. And I think there are at least three implications, and I'm going to share those with you in a moment.

But before I give you those three implications, let me first give you examples of how this concept plays out in politics. So I think there are at least two ways in which this plays out. The first one is in terms of what we think and talk about. So the topics.

This concept simply means that if we are focusing our policy debates, if the news is covering a particular topic over and over again, we keep discussing that in talk shows and so on, and in our policy debates, then that also tends to make that topic important to us. Whether the topic is important, based on other yardsticks, perhaps based on more objective data points, or not. Simply by putting a lot of attention on those topics, the topic becomes important in our minds. That's what the focusing illusion is about.

Now, the author of the book, Influence and Pre-Suasion, Cialdini, he gives a really good example of this. He goes back to the year 2003 and mentions how during the Iraq War, the US military decided to create this program of embedded reporters so that reporters could report about the war by being embedded with the military.

And so they were there, they were at the battles, and they could create their reports, they could capture the footage of a war so that we had this idea, and when we watched the reportings, we had this idea that we knew pretty well what was going on, and we saw what was happening in the actual battles. And the reporting was very much focused on what happened in the battles. Now, Cialdini gives this as an example to show that while the media and while the news reporting at the very outset of the invasion and before the actual invasion was very much about the why of the war and whether the country should go to war, with and partly due to this embedded reporter program, the media landscape changed.

Reporters started to report from the battle lines about the conduct of the war and not so much anymore about the why of the war. And so for us as well as people who are consuming the news then perhaps the focus was not so much on the reasons why this war was happening but more on what was actually happening, the battles that were fought, the soldiers and the citizens who died and all of that.

Now, Cialdini makes clear that this was probably not intentional. The program was perhaps probably not set up in order to achieve that. But whether intentional or not, it happened. Our focus was on the conduct of the war and not so much on the reasons for the war and the why of the war. And that's a good example of the focusing illusion in effect that we think...

Those topics are important. We think the conduct of the war is important because we keep hearing and seeing and talking about the conduct of the war and not related and perhaps more important topics than that.

This is where the concept of framing is also important. So the words that we use in a debate, whether we call something global warming or climate crisis or climate emergency, that's not just a slight difference in connotation, but it frames a whole debate. It comes with a whole baggage of value systems attached to it.

So that is the first way in which the focusing illusion plays out in politics. It's that by focusing on a few topics that we're talking about a lot, whether they are important for us, our set of values, whether they are important for what we want to achieve, the vision that we have for society, whether they are important simply by objectively looking at the data and figuring out how big the problem is that is attached to those topics, independent of that, by focusing on those topics, they become important to us.

There's a second way in which the focusing illusion plays out in politics, and it's not in the what, but in the who, who we think and talk about. Probably... and this is where I'm essentially falling into the trap of the focusing illusion. We all know this phenomenon of Donald Trump. When he was president, we were talking about him all the time because of everything that he did or didn't do and say and tweeted and so on. And by focusing all of our attention on him, those things that he did really became very, very important to us. Sometimes we made fun of it.

But at least he took so much of our attention that in our minds, perhaps the next insult was really, really important to us versus all the other things that were going on. It's a typical phenomenon that we tend to focus on the leaders in hierarchy. They've got the resources, they've got the decision -making power. Our attention often goes to...

the leaders of organizations and communities. There is this idea, for example, that a CEO of a company is really important because they are at the helm of the ship and they are making the big decisions and the success of the ship, the success of the company really depends on that steering. Well, there is data that shows that that may not be the case, that relevant or relative to other factors, such as timing, for example, timing of a product launch, the role of a CEO is quite limited. And so this is where the focusing illusion again comes in our tendency to focus and look towards the people at the top of a hierarchy and perhaps neglecting on other people who might still be relevant, at least for our lives or our own agency to shape the world around us, not looking at them, but being and becoming aware of what can we actually do and shape. So those are two ways in which the focusing illusion plays out in politics. It's the what and the who.

Now, I think from the focusing illusion, there are three implications for us. And I think the first two are for all of us as citizens.

Be aware: focus/attention --> what you think is important

And the first one of that is, I think, is being aware that this is playing out, that nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you're thinking about it. And then finding ways to shift and keep focus on what we deem important, to not be sidetracked by what is in the news or what that other person or group want to keep talking about, but waiting a moment and thinking, well, what is important?

to me, perhaps, and to the group that I'm a part of based on our values, based on what we want to achieve, based on the data that we are observing, and not to be sidetracked by that, at least unthinking in an unthinking way.

You have more agency than you think (...when focusing on leaders)

The second implication for all of us, I think, is that we've got much more agency to shape the world around us than a focus on a few people at the top of an organization sometimes make us believe. Yes, the people at the top, they've got a lot of resources, they've got decision-making power, but the focusing illusion exactly tells us that because we focus on them, because we spend so much attention on what they are doing or not doing, what they should be doing and so on, that becomes perhaps more important than it actually is. Their role becomes more important in our minds because we keep focusing on that than is actually warranted. And on the flip side, that means that we've probably got more agency to shape the world around us if we are aware that, yeah, perhaps it's just because of our focus on them that we think they are more important than perhaps what we are able to do in our end.

Accept responsibility for shaping our focus

There's a third implication, and I think this is especially for politicians. It's that they have a responsibility for shaping people's focus. Perhaps the implications not so much don't use this, but more don't misuse it. Or at the very least accept the responsibility that by talking about a topic, that by answering a question from a reporter in one way or the other,

You are also channeling and keeping people's attention on that topic. You are essentially pointing a flashlight on a topic and thereby pointing a flashlight on what we are going to possibly deem important. But that's the job description of a politician. And in a democracy, luckily, we have some say over who gets to do that, who has also that kind of power to shape our attention, to channel our attention. And for me, I'd rather have that be shaped by someone that I have a say over, right? That I say, hey, I want that person to be able to do that with me and with our attention rather than that other person, right? And I have a say in that, at least in elections, but also beyond that.

And to leave you with one last thought, though, it's not just that there are other people who are shaping our attention. It's the US president who's shaping our attention to talk about and think about one topic, and then we think it is important. It's not just people, it's also organizations, institutions that always tend to create an agency of their own, independent of the people. And perhaps even more importantly nowadays: the power of algorithms to shape our attention one way and not the other way.

So I think that sums up my first point about that we all have this, perhaps it's a responsibility to be aware of what is happening with our attention. And that is a really important factor here because the focusing illusion tells us that where our attention goes, our estimation or interpretation of what is important also tends to go there.