The Focusing Illusion [Schkade 1998] is a cognitive bias — a tendency to misjudge — that leads to attaching too much significance to one feature of an event or situation. We then make erroneous predictions of future outcomes. For example, many believe — wrongly, research shows — that wealth inevitably leads to happiness. That's why feature stories in the media about tragically unhappy lottery winners are so fascinating — the stories seem paradoxical.
The essence of the illusion is a failure to grasp the full complexity of life situations. Although living in California might increase the probability of attaining happiness, happiness is far from certain, and indeed, the probability of a given individual being happy in Los Angeles, California, isn't much different from the probability of that same individual being happy in, say, Cleveland, Ohio. The focusing illusion leads us to misjudge these probabilities. We forget, for example, that although Los Angeles has more sunny days, it also has more smog.
Most of the common examples of the focusing illusion emphasize the personal: if I were rich (or thin, or beautiful, …), I'd be happy. Some examples relate to relationships: if we had a child, our marriage would be saved.
But the focusing illusion also applies to organizations. Here are some examples of the focusing illusion in organizational life.
- If we acquire that company, we'll own the market and profits will dramatically increase.
- When we finish this project, the pressure will ease and we can get back to 40-hour weeks.
- If we can get Snidely off the team, we'll finally have peace and get some work done.
- If we hire this superstar, we'll be so much better managed that the share price will triple.
- If we can keep these production problems secret until they're fixed, nobody will ever find out and all will be well.
- If we redesign our work processes, productivity will increase so dramatically that our time-to-market will drop by 40%.
- If we consolidate these three locations into one, the cost savings in Fed-X and airfare alone will pay for the relocations in three years.
To guard against the focusing illusion, remember:
- The value of almostThe value of almost any
organizational attribute (like net
income, time-to-market, …) is
the result of contributions from
many elements any organizational attribute (like net income, time-to-market, …) is the result of contributions from many elements.
- Changing some of these elements will probably change the result, but the direction of the change depends on what else is happening.
- Any change you make might also change contributions from elements you don't change.
- Other elements you don't control are always free to change on their own or in response to external factors.
Consequently, the effects of changes we make are usually tangled up with other changes that are either already underway or that result unexpectedly from what we've done. We simply cannot get what we want by focusing solely on what we actually do control. Everything matters. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
For more on cognitive biases, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV," Point Lookout for January 11, 2006.
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Organizational Firefighting
- Sometimes companies or projects get into trouble, and "fires" erupt one after another. When
this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we
have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
- When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our
debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical,
and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
- Teamwork Myths: Formation
- Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths.
In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: V
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" are true often enough that we accept them as universal.
They aren't. Here's Part V of some widely held beliefs that mislead us at work.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.