Focalism and related biases

by Captain Walker

Categories: Education, Humanities, Psychology & Philosophy

This bias is quite common. Have you ever been in a conversation where you make a thoughtful point, only to have the other person latch onto a single word or phrase and totally miss your intended meaning? This common phenomenon is known as focalism bias, and it can lead to frustrating misunderstandings and derailed discussions. Focalism bias occurs when people fixate on one specific detail, often something emotionally salient or personally relevant, and lose sight of the bigger picture or context. It is a cognitive trap that can affect anyone, causing them to overlook important information and becoming sidetracked by tangential details.

I explore the concept of focalism bias in more depth, looking at some everyday examples and suggest strategies for overcoming this common cognitive pitfall. By understanding focalism bias and learning to spot it in action, we can communicate more effectively and have more meaningful, productive conversations. Focalism is also explored on a continuum into concretism which is a formal thought disorder.

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Description

What does focalism mean? Focalism, also known as the focusing illusion, is a prototypical example of how cognitive biases can influence thinking and decision-making. Focalism is the tendency to place too much focus or emphasis on a single factor or piece of information when making judgments or probabilistic forecasts. The concept is also known as the focusing illusion, “When a judgment about an entire object or category is made with attention focused on a subset of that category, a focusing illusion is likely to occur, whereby the attended subset is overweighted relative to the unattended subset. In particular, when attention is drawn to the possibility of a change in any significant aspect of life, the perceived effect of this change on well-being is likely to be exaggerated.” [Ref: Schkade and Kahneman’s 1998] For those who don’t know Kahneman is just the only psychologist in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Socioeconomics.

Imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend about the importance of living in the present moment and not getting caught up in worries about the future. You say something like, “It’s like that old saying, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.’ We need to learn to let go of the past and not stress too much about things we can’t change.”

Your friend, however, latches onto the phrase “spilled milk” and replies, “Oh man, that reminds me – I spilled anentire gallon of milk in my car last week. It was a nightmare to clean up and my car still kind of smells like sour milk. I had to drive around with the windows down for days!

In this scenario, your friend has fallen prey to focalism bias. Instead of engaging with the broader point you were making about living in the present and letting go of worries, they focused on the specific phrase “spilled milk” and got sidetracked by their own literal experience with spilled milk.

Your metaphorical use of the phrase was intended to convey a life lesson about not dwelling on the past, but your friend’s focalism bias caused them to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. They got hung up on the concrete example of spilled milk and started talking about their own experience, derailing the conversation and missing the opportunity to engage with the deeper philosophical point you were trying to make.

This example shows how focalism bias can lead to misunderstandings and misdirected conversations when people latch onto a single word or phrase and lose sight of the bigger picture or intended meaning

A discussion about the weather –

Mr X: “Yes the weather in the UK can be terrible at times. You need a raincoat in Ireland – because it rains so much over there.

Ms Y: “I don’t like raincoats. I will never set foot in Ireland anyway!“.

In English, “you” can be used in two distinct ways: as a second-person pronoun referring to a specific individual or group, or as a generic pronoun referring to people in general.
When you say, “You need a raincoat in Ireland – because it rains so much,” you’re using “you” in the generic sense. You’re not commenting on the specific preferences or plans of the person you’re talking to, but rather making a general statement about what one typically needs when visiting Ireland.

However, the listener may interpret “you” as referring specifically to them, leading them to respond based on their personal circumstances or opinions. They might focus on their individual dislike of raincoats or their lack of intention to visit Ireland, rather than engaging with the broader point about Irish weather and the necessity of rain gear.

This misinterpretation can be seen as a form of focalism bias – the listener is latching onto the specific word “you” and interpreting it in a narrow, personal way, while missing the broader, generic context in which it was used.

This kind of misunderstanding is a common pitfall of using the generic “you.” While it can be a useful linguistic tool for making general statements or giving advice, it can also lead to confusion if the listener interprets it as a personal comment.

Explanation in lay terms

The casual, non-technical understanding of focalism might be described as “hanging on a word.” This phrase nicely captures the central idea of focalism bias – the tendency to latch onto and overemphasise a specific word, phrase, or detail at the expense of the broader context or meaning.

When we say someone is “hanging on a word,” we often mean that they are fixating on a specific term or expression, usually in a way that derails the conversation or misses the intended point. This is the essence of focalism bias – a cognitive tunnel vision that narrows our focus to a salient detail, causing us to lose sight of the bigger picture.

This colloquial phrase, “hanging on a word,” is a reasonable way to make the concept of focalism bias more relatable and understandable to a general audience. It taps into a common experience – we’ve all had conversations where we or someone else got sidetracked by a specific term or detail.

While “hanging on a word” may not be the most precise or comprehensive description of focalism bias, it is a useful and relatable way to capture the core of this cognitive phenomenon for a general audience.

Historical context

The concept of focalism as a cognitive bias emerged from the field of decision-making research in the late 20th century. It was first formally described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their seminal 1979 paper “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk.” In this paper, they introduced the idea of the “focusing illusion,” which they described as the tendency to overemphasise specific, salient information when making predictions or decisions.

This work built on earlier research in cognitive psychology that explored how attentional focus and salience can influence perception and judgment. For example, the Gestalt psychologists of the early 20th century emphasised the importance of perceptual salience in shaping how we interpret ambiguous stimuli.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, researchers began to explore the implications of focalism and the focusing illusion in a variety of domains, from affective forecasting (predicting future emotional states) to health behaviours and policy decisions. The term “focalism” itself gained traction during this period as a way to refer to the broader tendency to overweight specific, focal information in judgment and decision-making.

Key milestones in the development of focalism as a concept include:

Today, focalism is recognised as a pervasive cognitive bias that can influence judgment and decision-making across a wide range of contexts, from personal life choices to public policy. Researchers continue to explore its mechanisms, manifestations, and potential countermeasures, contributing to our growing understanding of the complex ways in which cognitive biases shape human thought and behaviour.

Overlap of concepts

Concretism

Kircher et al 2014 described concretism as a thought disorder, “Concretism refers to difficulty in the comprehension of abstract (figurative) sentences or phrases (e.g. the understanding/interpretation of proverbs, metaphors, jokes). The patient adheres to the concrete meaning of the words/utterances.” – based on seminal explorations by Arolt et al., 2004; Binswanger, 1957; Blankenburg, 1971; Fish und Hamilton, 1984; Goldstein, 1944; Huber, 2005; Möller et al., 2009; Trabert und Stieglitz, 2007. Concretism is a severe, persistent thought disorder associated with mental health conditions but not diagnostic of any particular one.

Focalism

Focalism bias is a milder, more situational cognitive bias that can affect anyone. Focalism bias is often recognisable and correctable, while concretism is more resistant to change.

However, both involve a difficulty in shifting from concrete details to abstract meanings, and both can be seen as existing on a continuum of cognitive flexibility and abstraction.

This table highlights some of the key conceptual differences between focalism bias and concretism, while also suggesting some potential areas of overlap or continuity.
FeatureFocalism BiasConcretism
NatureCognitive biasThought disorder
OccurrenceSituational, occasionalPersistent, pervasive
SeverityMild, transientSevere, chronic
Populations affectedGeneral populationIndividuals with mental disorders
Awareness & correctionOften recognisable and correctable when pointed outDifficult to overcome, even when prompted
Scope of impactSpecific conversations or situationsBroad range of contexts and interactions
AbstractnessDifficulty shifting focus from salient details to broader meaningFundamental struggle with abstract thinking and figurative language
ExamplesGetting sidetracked by a specific word or phraseLiteral interpretation of proverbs, metaphors, jokes
Cognitive flexibilityTemporary rigidity or inflexibilityChronic inflexibility and difficulty shifting interpretive frameworks
Impact on communicationCan lead to misunderstandings and derailed conversationsSignificantly impairs ability to understand and engage in nuanced communication
Clinical significanceNot clinically significant on its ownA clinically significant indicator of possible underlying mental disorders
Dimensional viewMay represent mild end of a continuumMay represent severe end of a continuum
Research implicationsStudying in non-clinical populations can inform understandingClinical manifestations can illuminate extreme end of cognitive continuum

Parsing similar biases

There are several cognitive biases that share some features with focalism bias or can lead to similar effects on thinking and decision-making. These include:

  1. Anchoring bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Like focalism, anchoring can lead to an overemphasis on specific, salient information at the expense of other relevant data.
  2. Availability heuristic: This is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events that are more easily remembered or imagined. Similar to focalism, the availability heuristic can cause people to focus on vivid, salient information while neglecting less immediately available but potentially important considerations.
  3. Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. Like focalism, confirmation bias can lead to a narrow, selective focus on information that aligns with a particular perspective.
  4. Attentional bias: This refers to the tendency for perception to be affected by recurring thoughts. For example, people who frequently think about the clothes they wear pay more attention to the clothes of others. This shares with focalism a narrowing of attentional scope based on salient or recurring stimuli.
  5. Framing effect: This is the observation that individuals often respond differently to a particular choice depending on how it is presented or “framed.” Like focalism, framing effects can lead to decisions being unduly influenced by specific, salient aspects of how a situation is described.
  6. Functional fixedness: This is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. Like focalism, functional fixedness involves a kind of cognitive rigidity or inflexibility, a difficulty in seeing beyond the most salient or familiar interpretation.
  7. Overconfidence bias: This is the tendency for people to be overly confident in their abilities, decisions, and knowledge. Like focalism, overconfidence can lead to a neglect of alternative perspectives and a narrow focus on one’s own viewpoint.
  8. Halo effect: This is the tendency for an individual’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product to influence their feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties. Similar to focalism, the halo effect can lead to a narrow focus on specific, salient features at the expense of a more balanced, holistic evaluation.

While these biases are distinct from focalism and operate in different ways, they all share a tendency to narrow one’s cognitive scope, overemphasise specific information, or limit the consideration of alternative viewpoints. Understanding these related biases can provide a more comprehensive picture of the various ways in which human thinking can be biased by salient, immediate, or confirmatory information.

Recognising the similarities and differences between these biases can also inform the development of more targeted and effective debiasing strategies. While some interventions may be specific to a particular bias, others, such as those that generally encourage cognitive flexibility and the consideration of multiple perspectives, may help mitigate a range of related biases, including focalism.

The table compares focalism bias with the eight related biases discussed above:
BiasSimilarity to FocalismDifference from Focalism
Anchoring biasOveremphasis on specific, salient informationFocuses specifically on the first piece of information encountered
Availability heuristicOveremphasis on easily remembered or imagined informationFocuses on ease of recall rather than mere salience
Confirmation biasNarrow focus on information that confirms prior beliefsDriven by motivation to confirm existing beliefs rather than mere salience
Attentional biasNarrowing of attentional scope based on salient stimuliDriven specifically by recurring thoughts or experiences
Framing effectUndue influence of specific, salient aspects of presentationFocuses on the impact of presentation or wording rather than inherent salience
Functional fixednessCognitive rigidity and difficulty seeing beyond the familiarFocuses specifically on the traditional use or function of an object
Overconfidence biasNeglect of alternative perspectives due to excessive confidenceDriven by self-confidence rather than inherent salience of one’s own view
Halo effectNarrow focus on specific, salient features in evaluationFocuses on the impact of overall impressions on the evaluation of specific traits

As this table illustrates, each of these biases shares with focalism a tendency to overemphasise specific, salient information or to narrowly focus on a particular perspective. However, they differ in the specific mechanisms driving this narrowed focus.

For anchoring bias, the salient information is specifically the first information encountered. For the availability heuristic, it is the ease of recall that makes certain information salient. Confirmation bias is driven by the motivation to confirm existing beliefs, while attentional bias is driven by recurring thoughts or experiences.

The framing effect is concerned with how the presentation of information makes certain aspects more salient, while functional fixedness is a cognitive rigidity specifically around the traditional uses of objects. Overconfidence bias is a neglect of alternatives driven by excessive self-confidence, while the halo effect is a narrow focus driven by overall impressions.

So while all these biases can lead to similar outcomes as focalism – a neglect of potentially important information due to a narrow, biased focus – the specific cognitive mechanisms and drivers differ.

Cognitive bias mitigation

There are several key interventions and strategies that can help individuals and groups avoid or mitigate focalism and related biases. These include:

  1. Awareness and metacognition: Simply being aware of focalism bias and understanding how it can affect thinking and decision-making is an important first step. Cultivating metacognition – the ability to reflect on and monitor one’s own thought processes – can help catch instances of focalism in action.
  2. Active perspective-taking: Making a deliberate effort to consider multiple perspectives and interpretations can counteract the tunnel vision of focalism. This might involve asking oneself, “What other ways could this information be interpreted? What am I missing by focusing on this specific detail?”
  3. Broadening attentional scope: Practices that encourage a broader, more flexible attentional scope can help break the narrow focus of focalism. This might include mindfulness techniques that foster a more open, non-judgmental awareness of the full range of available information.
  4. Dialectical thinking: Cultivating a dialectical thinking style – one that emphasises the synthesis of opposing perspectives – can help break the rigid, either/or thinking that often underlies focalism. This involves actively seeking out and considering contradictory or complementary viewpoints.
  5. Probabilistic reasoning: Encouraging a probabilistic approach to reasoning – one that considers multiple possibilities and their likelihoods – can help counter the tendency to fixate on a single, salient outcome or interpretation.
  6. Collaborative decision-making: In group settings, using structured decision-making processes that encourage the consideration of multiple viewpoints and the systematic evaluation of alternatives can help avoid the pitfalls of individual focalism.
  7. Debiasing techniques: Specific debiasing techniques, such as consider-the-opposite or the broad-bracketing approach, can be used to actively challenge and correct for focalism bias in decision-making contexts.
  8. Cognitive diversity: Fostering cognitive diversity in teams and organisations – bringing together individuals with different backgrounds, expertise, and thinking styles – can help ensure that a range of perspectives are considered and that focalism by any one individual or subgroup is less likely to dominate.
  9. Iterative reasoning: Encouraging an iterative approach to reasoning – one that revisits and revises initial judgments in light of new information – can help correct for the snap judgments that focalism can produce.
  10. Structured analysis: Using structured analytic techniques, such as devil’s advocacy or the analysis of competing hypotheses, can systematically counteract the narrowing effects of focalism in strategic or intelligence contexts.

The effectiveness of these interventions may vary depending on the specific context and the severity of the bias at play. In some cases, a combination of strategies may be needed. And for more severe forms of concrete thinking, as in clinical concretism, more targeted cognitive and behavioural therapies may be necessary.

Closing summary

Focalism bias, also known as the focusing illusion, is a cognitive bias that can significantly impact thinking and decision-making. It refers to the tendency to overemphasise specific, salient information while neglecting broader context or alternative perspectives. This cognitive tunnel vision can lead to narrow, rigid thinking and can result in biased judgments and suboptimal decisions.

Researchers have identified several key interventions and strategies that can help mitigate focalism bias. At the individual level, cultivating awareness and metacognition is crucial. By understanding how focalism operates and monitoring one’s own thought processes, individuals can catch instances of this bias in action. Actively taking multiple perspectives, broadening attentional scope, and engaging in dialectical thinking can also help counter the narrowing effects of focalism.

In decision-making contexts, using probabilistic reasoning and structured analytic techniques can ensure that a range of possibilities and viewpoints are considered. Debiasing techniques, such as consider-the-opposite or broad bracketing, can be employed to challenge and correct for focalism. Encouraging iterative reasoning, where initial judgments are revisited in light of new information, can also help mitigate this bias.

At the group level, fostering collaborative decision-making processes that systematically consider alternatives can prevent individual focalism from dominating. Cultivating cognitive diversity within teams brings together different backgrounds and thinking styles, ensuring a broader range of perspectives. Structured group techniques like devil’s advocacy or the analysis of competing hypotheses can further counteract focalism.

The effectiveness of these interventions may vary depending on the severity and context of the focalism bias. Milder, situational instances may be corrected with increased awareness and perspective-taking, while more severe forms, as in clinical concretism, may require targeted cognitive and behavioural therapies.

Ultimately, focalism bias is a pervasive cognitive tendency that can significantly impact thinking and judgment if left unchecked. By understanding its mechanisms and employing a range of individual and group interventions, the narrowing, distorting effects of focalism can be mitigated. Cultivating cognitive flexibility, encouraging multiple perspectives, and systematically broadening attentional scope are powerful tools for more balanced, effective thinking and decision-making in the face of this common cognitive bias.

Supplemental reading:

  1. Focalism: The Reason You Sometimes Make The Wrong Decision
  2. The Pursuit of Happiness Part 2: The Focusing Illusion

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