Focalism: What are you missing?

Play the video (only about 1.5 min – you don’t need sound) and count how many times the team in white pass the basketball to each other…

Did you spot it?

This video is the basis of research by Simons & Chabris (1999) which illustrates our tendency to completely ignore certain things when our attention is focused on something else.

We lost! Woe is me!

This ‘inattentional blindness’ or focalism crops up when we are trying to predict what will affect our future happiness. In a series of studies with college American football fans (Wilson et al., 2000), people consistently over-estimated the likely negative (or positive) effect of their favoured team losing (or winning). They predicted that they would be much sadder (or happier) than they actually were. They thought that they would be sadder (or happier) for longer than was actually the case. And they estimated that they would spend more time thinking about the result than they actually did.

This inability to accurately predict our future emotional state has significant consequences for career choice. In an earlier study (Gilbert et al., 1998), assistant professors in US colleges predicted that being granted tenure would have a impact on their happiness for several years, whereas professors who had achieved tenure were no happier than those who had not.

Ignoring the small stuff

What the American football fans and the college professors neglected were the everyday things that happen in real life and get in the way of us focusing on what we assume will be significant. For the tenured professors, the routine of the teaching schedule and departmental meetings soon diminished the joy of their achievement.

For the professors who didn’t get tenure, these everyday concerns dimmed the pain. Their psychological immune system may also have kicked in to protect them from the anguish by helping them to re-evaluate the significance of the event (‘It was probably for the best. I’m not sure the position was all that great anyway’).

This tendency to over-estimate the impact of significant events can effect our ability to make good career decisions. Clients often avoid pursuing particular desirable actions because of the possible disruption they predict it will cause. Employees often anticipate that redundancy and restructuring will be more painful than it actually is and that it will hurt for longer than it actually does.

For more on this, see the TED talk by Daniel Gilbert (c. 20 min):

Correcting for focalism

The good news is that when the college football fans were made to focus on these everyday things by keeping a diary before making their predictions, they were much more accurate.

If we want clients to make better predictions about their prospective happiness, we need to encourage them to include the small stuff in their visualisations of the future.

  • What examples of focalism have you come across?
  • What are the dangers of inattentional blindness for coaches and guidance practitioners and how can we correct them?
  • How long were you upset about England being knocked out of the World Cup or Andy Murray dropping out of Wimbledon? Is that what you expected?

Further reading

Related postsThe danger of goals and power, What’s your bias?


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  1. #1 by Jim bright on 6 July 2010 - 22:46

    Focalism = point attractor behavior, see David’s discussion in earlier post

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