Thursday, September 07, 2006

Staying focused

It's called the focusing illusion, and social scientists who base their research on subject interviews keep it in mind.

For example, ask college students 1) How happy are you with your life in general? then 2) How many dates have you had in the last month? and the correlation between the questions is effectively zero. Conclusion, general happiness doesn't depend on popularity with the opposite sex (or same sex, as the case may be). But reverse the order of the questions, and the correlation rises dramatically, leading to exactly the opposite conclusion.

According to researchers, asking the dating question first "focuses" the attention of the respondents on that aspect of their lives and unduly influences their view of their general happiness.

A recent study reported in Science took the focusing effect into account when concluding that being rich doesn't make one happier than one's less wealthy neighbors. But ask the wealth question first and you get a skewed answer.

The focusing illusion is worth pondering quite apart from any particular study. We are all focused in our opinions by any number of factors: the circumstances of our birth, our upbringing, our experiences (especially traumatic experiences), perhaps even our genes. It is well known, for instance, that our fidelity to a particular religion correlates most closely with the religion we were born into. One recent study even suggests a genetic component to political persuasion.

Focus is generally considered a good thing, but it can be constraining too. My life's work as a writer has certainly been focused by the experiences of my youth; there is no way it could be otherwise. But I struggle to stay open to other ideas and cultures. Reading widely helps. Staying in touch with multicultural science helps. Most of all, I keep reminding myself of the focusing illusion as a hedge on zealotry.