Focalism (sometimes called the focusing illusion) is the tendency for people to give too much weight to one particular piece of information when making judgments and predictions. By focusing too much on one thing (the focal event or hypothesis), people tend to neglect other important considerations and end up making inaccurate judgments as a result.
Focalism has been shown to bias judgments in two different domains.
The first domain is that of affective forecasting, or the prediction of future feelings and emotions. People tend to overestimate the impact of positive and negative events on their future happiness, a phenomenon known as impact bias. One cause of the impact bias is a tendency to focus too narrowly on the positive or negative event itself and neglect the extent to which other, nonfocal events will also affect future thought and emotion. When predicting how they will feel several days after their team wins an important game, for example, college students focus too much on the prospect of victory itself, and neglect to consider all of the other events—a quarrel with a friend, that upcoming organic chemistry test, or a visit from their parents— that will occupy their attention in the days following the game.
Focalism in affective forecasts also explains why both Californians and Midwesterners incorrectly believe that people living in California are happier in general. When comparing life in California to life in the Midwest, people focus too much on one obvious difference between the two regions—climate—and fail to consider all of the other, more important ways in which living in the Midwest is comparable to, or even better than, living in California. It is true that Californians are more satisfied with their own region’s climate than are Midwesterners. But climate is not all that important in determining how happy people will be with their lives in general. Having fulfilling relationships, rewarding work, and a comfortable standard of living are much more important determinants of well-being.
Some researchers have proposed that focalism may also help explain why people tend to underestimate the happiness of individuals living with disabilities such as paraplegia. According to this idea, when imagining life as a paraplegic, people focus too much on the ways in which paraplegia would change their lives for the worse and neglect to consider all of the positive aspects of their lives that would stay the same. Several investigations have failed to find support for this hypothesis, however. It seems instead that people underestimate the happiness of those with paraplegia because they underestimate the human ability to adapt to new circumstances, even negative ones.
The second domain in which focalism operates is that of social comparison. When comparing their own traits, abilities, or futures to those of others, people overweight information about the self and underweight information about the targets of their comparisons. People judging whether they are more or less likely than their peers to experience a variety of life events, for example, focus too much on their own likelihood of experiencing these events and fail to consider the likelihood that their peers will also experience these events. This leads them to overestimate their relative chances of experiencing common events and underestimate their relative chances of experiencing rare events, producing unrealistic optimism for certain kinds of events (common positive and rare negative events) but unrealistic pessimism for others (common negative and rare positive events). This same kind of focalism operates in comparative judgments of skill and ability, in which people judge as above average their own ability to perform easy tasks, such as operating a computer mouse, while judging as below average their own ability to perform difficult tasks, such as juggling. Finally, focalism contributes to the tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which shared benefits and shared adversities will uniquely affect their own performance in competitive contexts. When estimating their chances of winning a poker game that includes wildcards, for example, people focus too much on how wildcards could help their own hands and not enough on how these same cards can also help their opponents’ hands. As a result, people are likely to bet more in games in which wildcards are included, even though the inclusion of wildcards affects all players’ chances equally.
Cultural Differences in Focalism
Susceptibility to focalism varies across cultures. In comparison to North Americans and Western Europeans, Asians are more likely to think holistically, to pay attention to the big picture. This suggests that people in Asian cultures will be less likely to suffer from focalism in their judgments, and research supports this hypothesis. Asians are less likely to focus on a single focal event (such as a change in weather) when predicting their happiness at a later date, and they are less likely to mispredict their future happiness as a result.
How can focalism be reduced? The method of debiasing depends on the type of focalism affecting one’s judgments. For predictions about one’s future happiness in the wake of a positive or negative event, focalism can be reduced by making a list of all of the other events that will be competing for one’s attention in the future. For social comparisons, focalism can be reduced by shifting attention away from the self and toward the comparison target. Instead of being asked to judge their own skills in comparison to their peers, for example, people can be asked to judge their peers’ skills in comparison to their own. This technique leads people to focus more on what they know about their peers and produces less self-focused judgments as a result.
- Kruger, J., & Burrus, J. (2004). Egocentrism and focalism in unrealistic optimism (and pessimism). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 332-340.
- Wilson, T. D., Wheatley, T., Meyers, J. M., Gilbert, D. T., & Axsom, D. (2000). Focalism: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 821-836.