If you won the lottery, would you be happier? Although the answer may seem obvious, our perceptions of what’s important to us don’t always match the reality. In this episode, Mel and Dan consider how we can use the magic of the focusing illusion to capture consumers’ attention.
Dan: 00:01 What has happened to you?
Mel: 00:04 I just don't care anymore. I Google things for research (laughs), and Kops don't cut that at the end.
Dan: 00:09 And that was the day Mel lost her accreditation. Okay.
Dan: 00:32 Hey, and welcome to Bad Decisions. The show that helps us understand why we choose what we choose-
Mel: 00:36 Why we think what we think.
Dan: 00:38 And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.
Mel: 00:40 I'm Doctor Mel Weinberg. I'm a Performance Psychologist.
Dan: 00:43 You know, you always used to say "ethically of course" at the end, which you've stopped saying-
Mel: 00:47 I've given up, what does that say?
Dan: 00:47 Hey, I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for today.
Dan: 00:58 Funny story on the weekend.
Mel: 01:00 Tell me all about it.
Dan: 01:00 You love hearing my parenting stories.
Mel: 01:02 Always.
Dan: 01:02 All right, so my daughter is two and half now, very cute, daddy's girl, love her. It's great. Love my son too. Anyway, she’s got a lot of toys, as kids today do, like a whole room full of toys. Used to be a study, now it's a toy room. And she's got a cousin, so my nephew who's a boy, and he's maybe three months younger than her-
Mel: 01:19 Hoping he's a boy if he's your nephew.
Dan: 01:20 Yeah, that's how it works. So he was over on the weekend, and these two adore each other. They love each other, they've literally grown up all over each other. And they love each other, but they fight like crazy. And what usually happens is my nephew comes over, and he walks into the toy room, and there's a hundred toys in there, and he just picks a thing, so this week it was this stroller. Some random stroller that he wanted to play with.
And my daughter, who really has not touched this toy stroller for weeks, maybe even months, decides for a moment that this toy stroller is now the single key to her happiness. It is the sole reason for her being on this planet, and she needs this toy stroller in her hands and in her life, right now.
So as you can imagine, they start having a grab off with each other. They're screaming. They’re crying. There's very rational me trying to explain to my daughter that there are so many other toys in here, many of which are also strollers, some of which are substitutes for strollers, some of which are nothing to do with strollers at all, but could also be a source of happiness. She didn't want a bar of it. She just wanted the damn stroller.
Mel: 02:25 Her two and half year old brain was focused on getting that stroller, and that stroller only.
Dan: 02:30 Yeah, and it didn't matter how much I wanted to tell her about all the other great toys in the room, she couldn't give a shit. She wants the one thing that her cousin has picked up and he wants to play with as well.
Mel: 02:38 We're also going to need to work on your parenting strategies, because trying to rationalise with a two and half year old is probably not gonna get you very far.
Dan: 02:43 No, it's going to be fine. At some point she's going to be old enough to understand, by which point I will be so well practiced at rationalising with her, I will kick her ass.
Mel: 02:50 Just watch out.
Dan: 02:50 Yeah.
Mel: 02:51 All right, so how did this whole situation resolve? What did you do, as Dad, to get through this?
Dan: 02:56 Well, I decided that the stroller was the only thing that would add happiness to my life, so I confiscated it, took it for myself, and left the two of them to play with something else.
Mel: 03:05 And it worked?
Dan: 03:06 Yeah, well, define worked? No, don't define worked. It worked. But you know, kids … come on guys.
Mel: 03:12 Kids, right? Kids brains, right? How silly that they can only focus on one thing at a time, and that becomes the object that completely dominates their attention, that they just refuse to look at anything else.
Dan: 03:23 Idiots.
Mel: 03:23 Yeah, see the funny thing is, adult brains sort of work the same way.
Dan: 03:28 Oh, come on.
Mel: 03:28 Sorry to tell you, but that's one of the things that we just don't outgrow. In adults, we refer to it as the Focusing Illusion.
Dan: 03:39 Ah, sounds far more grown up, “the Focusing Illusion”, than “having a tantrum.”
Mel: 03:46 Yeah, so the Focusing Illusion is basically the idea that we have a limited attention span. Or we have a limited tank of attention, so only one thing can really dominate our attention at any particular point in time. And we convince ourselves that that is the most important thing, at the time, because we're thinking about it, so obviously it has to be important, or we have to at least tell ourselves it's super important.
But at the time that we're thinking about it, it is actually the most important thing. We actually don't have the capacity to think about too many things at one time, so multi-tasking is a terrible idea. We have one thing that we can really focus on, and we think that it's way more important than it is.
Dan: 04:22 This sounds like something that's going to get us into trouble.
Mel: 04:24 Well, like every illusion that we talk about, it does. And the fact that it's called an illusion makes it sound even more-
Dan: 04:31 It's mystical.
Mel: 04:31 Yeah, mystical, so let me tell you a little bit about some research.
Dan: 04:37 No you do not have, you do not have research about this!
Mel: 04:38 Oh yeah. Oh I do.
Speaker 3: 04:39 “Merlin’s beard, you must be Harry Potter!”
Mel: 04:48 You know what, cause I love research so much I'm actually going to give you two research articles about this.
Dan: 04:52 Whoa!
Mel: 04:54 They sort of lend into one another. So the first we're gonna talk about is one of the most well known research articles in the field of understanding happiness. Which is pretty much what dominates most of my research career. It's a study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman back in 1978.
Dan: 05:10 The Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman.
Mel: 05:13 Often known as the Brickman et al study, right? So the Brickman et al study was looking at the happiness of lottery winners and comparing them to the happiness of paraplegics. So you have people who either have the best thing that you could imagine happening to them, as in winning the lottery, or one of the worst things that people could imagine which would be to become a paraplegic. And what they did was they assessed the happiness of these groups of people and-
Dan: 05:38 These have to be a binary grouping? There are no paraplegics that win the lotteries?
Mel: 05:41 Well there was a control group. (laughs) That would be an interesting group then.
Dan: 05:45 Yeah you guys are neutral! We've worked it out.
Mel: 05:47 We've balanced you out. What they found was that after a not particularly extensive period of time the happiness of both lottery winners and paraplegics returned back to their pre-event state. So even though you would think that, and I guess this is what made the study so remarkable, is that ordinary people looking at this would go "Wait, surely lottery winners are gonna be way happier than paraplegics right?"
Dan: 06:11 One would think.
Mel: 06:11 The best thing that could happen to you and one of the worst things that could happen to you, you would think that over time that would stay the same. But actually the research found sort of counterintuitively that both of their happiness states returned to what we call their normal or baseline levels not that long after the actual event.
Dan: 06:27 So basically what's the point of doing anything?
Mel: 06:29 Well this changed the way that we think about happiness, because it speaks to the fact that we adapt to things. We don't think that we adapt to things so when we think about events happening, we think about winning the lottery “wow that would be amazing”, we fail to recognise that we adapt to situations very quickly. We are way more resilient than we give ourselves credit for, and resilience is about adapting to both happy and sad events. So it works both ways. But we don't actually imagine how resilient we're going to be in response to situations. We focus instead on the actual event.
Dan: 07:01 Yeah and I guess a straight away, shoot from the hip example that springs to mind as soon as you talk about this, as a guy who runs an agency, is pay rises. You give out a pay rise to somebody and the first time you do this you think this is going to be amazing, this is really going to give the person the bump that they need and they're going to come into work so excited and motivated. And what you learn very quickly is that people just return to the normal baseline of where they were in almost no time. And I actually went and had a look at some research from this because you know pay rise is a thing you can't really get away from as an employer, and best case scenario maybe you can get a bump for six weeks out of a pay rise. You go and cut somebody a check for five grand, ten grand, fifteen grand whatever, best case scenario you're going to get six weeks out of it and then they’re-
Mel: 07:47 And then they're gonna want more.
Dan: 07:47 Yeah and then they go back to that where it's always been.
Mel: 07:48 So no pay rises for your employees?
Dan: 07:52 So no pay- well lots of very very small pay rises.
Mel: 07:52 Well that's a better way to hack it.
Dan: 07:53 Every six months, yeah.
Mel: 07:54 I'm glad I don't work for you.
Dan: 07:56 Aw come on.
Mel: 07:57 The next study which came out about twenty years later, so taking us to 1998, was by Schkade and Kahneman, do you know that name?
Dan: 08:04 That guy?
Mel: 08:05 Yeah, Kahneman again. So this study was basically looking at what was called the Focusing Illusion. They looked at the Brickman at el study and said, "Well we know what's going on here and we're gonna test why it's happening."
And so they had one of those great titled articles, you know that's the key getting a good research paper. You gotta give it a good title.
Dan: 08:24 Clickbait.
Mel: 08:24 So the title was “Does Living in California Make People Happy?” And what they were doing was prompting people to think about what it would be like if somebody just like them, with their values, their interests at their stage in life, were to move to California what their happiness would be like. And also if somebody just like them with their values and interests and at their stage in life were to move to the mid-west, how happy would they be?
Dan: 08:52 Why would you set up those two? There's nothing wrong with the mid-west. You set 'em up like they're at opposite ends of the spectrum!
Mel: 08:56 Right the thing is-
Dan: 08:58 A lot of good things happen in the mid-west.
Mel: 08:58 I'm sure they do, the thing is that when most people think of California they think about the weather and how beautiful it is especially when you've been prompted that you're involved in a study that's looking at the impact of climate on happiness.
Dan: 09:09 Ah, that was a thing.
Mel: 09:09 Yeah so that makes a bit of a difference as well.
Dan: 09:11 Yeah.
Mel: 09:12 And then what they did was they compared the results to the happiness ratings of people who actually live in California and who actually live in the mid-west and what you find is that when people self rate their own happiness the overall happiness of people who lived in California and lived in the mid-west were the same, there was no difference. The reason is people don't typically think of the climate when they're thinking about how happy they are-
Dan: 09:36 It's like one of many things.
Mel: 09:37 But when you put that as the point of contrast between two groups and you ask others to report how people will feel in those situations, they over exaggerate the importance of climate in their estimation so they think, "Oh well a person living in California would be way happier than a person living in the mid-west."
Dan: 09:56 Right so let me get this straight, so they asked a bunch of people in California and a bunch of people living in the mid-west how happy they were. And then they asked a bunch of people who lived in neither how happy they think they would be if they lived in California or the mid-west?
Mel: 10:05 Or someone like them, yeah.
Dan: 10:06 And so what people thought was if they moved to California they would be way happier than if they moved to the mid-west.
Mel: 10:12 Yeah.
Dan: 10:13 Because the weather is so much better in California? That's an easy jump to make isn't it?
Mel: 10:19 Yeah.
Dan: 10:19 But I guess what you're saying is it's completely incorrect.
Mel: 10:21 It's due to the fact that they're focusing on a particular aspect, i.e the climate, which actually isn't as important as they think it is.
Dan: 10:27 Right and why is that?
Mel: 10:29 Because when people are estimating their overall happiness they think of a number of different things and climate is not something that takes priority. It's like how people also think that money will make them happy. There are a whole bunch of things that go into contributing to your happiness and how you rate your happiness and overall money is not at the top of the list.
Dan: 10:46 So I guess what we're suggesting here is that we sort of do this gross simplification and when we're trying to forward project what will make us happy, we look at one thing and think “yeah that's the lever.” So if I just had more money or if I just had a six pack or if I just had that particular car, I would be so much happier than I am now. And maybe what we fail to understand is that in the future it's a very multifaceted world with lots of variables that contribute to our happiness and those things are probably nowhere near as important as we think they are.
Mel: 11:16 Yeah, I mean it goes a long way to explain why people make bad spending decisions. Like “I need to have those pair of shoes, if I had those pair of shoes in my life then everything would be better. I would be happier, I'd be walking around in those shoes. God it would feel so good to be in those shoes!” But three hours after you bought the shoes the effect fades, it wears off and all of the sudden you're not as happy as... They don't have the power to make you as happy as they did from the start.
Dan: 11:39 Right, small potentially side note but I just remember hearing this idea that when you really lust after something for a long time and then you go and buy it and in that tiny little window where it's come into your possession, the joy that you feel is not actually the joy of owning that thing, it's the joy of not lusting for something.
Mel: 11:55 It's relief. (laughs) You don't need to lust after it anymore.
Dan: 11:59 It's just the joy of actually not wanting for anything and then after half an hour or two hours, a sort of fire gets stocked again and you start lusting for things. Anyway kind of a weird idea.
Mel: 12:10 It takes us to an interesting discussion around attention and about our capacity to attend to things. We've mentioned multitasking, but this idea that we have a certain amount of brain fuel? There's only a limited amount that we can spend at any moment so we actually can't focus on multiple things at any one time. We're using our brain most effectively if we're just focusing on one particular thing at any given time.
Mel: 12:33 And this is the reason why magic happens.
Dan: 12:37 Right. I was right with you and-
Mel: 12:42 And then we went to magic, cause in my next career I'm going to be a magician. I'm going to take everything I know about how people's attention works and then I'm gonna become the next David Copperfield.
Dan: 12:52 But you already are a magician, you're a magician of the mind.
Mel: 12:53 That's a nice way to put it but I can entertain people with it. At the moment I don't use it for entertainment purposes.
Dan: 12:59 Yeah, what do you call this show?
Mel: 12:59 (laughs) Yeah, you got me.
Dan: 13:03 Edutainment?
Mel: 13:04 Something like that, infotainment. But the whole thing with magic, look I'm not going to go into a discussion on whether or not you believe in magic and I like to believe in some magical things, but a lot of magicians work by manipulating your attention.
Dan: 13:19 Yeah when we talk about magic you're not talking about fairies and tooth fairies and pixies and that.
Mel: 13:24 Not in this context, but I do believe in fairies.
Dan: 13:26 We're not doing that now. But you're talking about Vegas, magic shows, magicians-
Mel: 13:30 I'm talking about card tricks, yeah that sort of stuff-
Dan: 13:33 Card tricks yeah, and I guess things that rely on that idea of misdirection. Where a magician is doing something with their left hand that is very interesting and distracting so you don't notice what you're doing with their right hand. Or they have beautiful girls doing stuff with hula-hoops so that you're kind of watching that and you've just neglected to see the guy put something in his pocket or pull something out of his pocket.
Mel: 13:50 Yeah, see that's the trick whenever they bring beautiful girls out, and if you're like me and you don't get distracted by the beautiful girls you're like "Oh what is the magician doing right now?"
Cause I wanna watch exactly what he's doing at every moment in time, I don't wanna miss a thing.
Dan: 13:59 Yeah and maybe it's actually the beautiful girls who are doing the trick.
Mel: 14:02 Oh wow.
Dan: 14:03 Yeah see double misdirection. So I guess this focusing illusion or focusing bias makes a lot of sense right, if we just talk about being humans trying to cope in this world. Because if you said to me, "Hey think about what would make you happy in five years from now or ten years from now." And I really thought about that as a legitimate question that is like really hard. It's multifaceted, there's so many things that I have to weigh up it makes sense that my brain would just wanna pick some cheats or substitutions and go “well, more money would be good so I'll just pick that.”
Mel: 14:34 Yeah like too hard basket just give me something simple.
Dan: 14:36 Yeah just throw me a frickin bone here.
Mel: 14:38 So I mentioned with your marketing hat on that this could come into play-
Dan: 14:42 It's the only hat that I own let's be honest.
Mel: 14:45 Well given it's a big hat then, you've got something in there I'm sure this would apply to finding your point of difference in the field, something like that with a new product?
Dan: 14:57 I love this bias because this is what great brand positioning and great advertising is all about. So it's saying somebody's gonna have to make a decision and most decisions are actually, if you think about them, quite complex. So just think about something that's completely run of the mill like going to the supermarket to buy cottage cheese. What is your decision making criteria for buying cottage cheese? If the brands don't give you one, you've just got a whole bunch of cottage cheese lined up it's hard. Are you looking at price? Are you looking at packaging size? Are you trying to guess what they taste like based on the packaging?
Mel: 15:27 Which one looks the nicest.
Dan: 15:29 Yeah, or you looking at salt content, or fat, or who knows. As brands and advertisers what we get to do is to give people a thing to focus on and say, "Don't worry about all that, this one has protein in it."
Mel: 15:41 Right.
Dan: 15:41 Or “this one has no sugar, or this one has low salt.” And it says to people that's the thing to focus on, don't worry about trying to weigh up everything else. So this is why you see things with no sugar but they're loaded with fat. Or things with no fat but they're loaded with sugar because marketing brands know people can't do all the calcs so we just give them a thing to hook onto.
Mel: 16:01 So what you're talking about is using that smartly in the sense that you can understand that when people are in this situation they're gonna have to think of something that's gonna make their decision easier, right? And they might automatically go you know what. Price. I'm just gonna go with the cheapest. Which I imagine is what a lot of people will do-
Dan: 16:15 If nothing else yeah.
Mel: 16:17 What you're saying is that what you can do is actually you can prime them to have a specific thing that they focus on. They're going to focus on something and rather than letting them do it off their own bat, which could take me anywhere and I may not win in that sense, I'm gonna be like this is what you're focusing on. This is what is important to you right now.
Dan: 16:32 Probably one of my favourite sayings about advertising or thought bubbles about advertising is the idea that there is no such thing as a low interest category, only low interest brands. For those of you outside of advertising, a low interest category is a thing people wouldn't spend much mental energy thinking about. So you might say that buying cottage cheese is a low interest category. Who's gonna think too much about that?
Mel: 16:54 Yeah who cares?
Dan: 16:55 But that only exists when there's low interest brands because no brand has turned up and said "Ah we'll give you something to think about!" And you see this all over the supermarket. You see the creation of whole categories like sugar free cola. All the colas were the same and then there's one that's sugar free and it's like “oh god is that a thing I'm meant to think about?”
Dan: 17:12 Free range eggs which is a great thing, don't get me wrong, but was not a thing that people think about as a decision criteria. Now we're starting to see meat and poultry with things like antibiotic free. That's a thing? Is that a thing I need to think about? Well I guess if it is I need to pick the one that's antibiotic free and not worry the other 15 attributes that I might make this decision based on.
Mel: 17:31 Yeah and it doesn't even have to be interesting. Like something being antibiotic free I don't actually care it's just something different. And anytime you're presented with something different your brain has to dedicate attention to understanding it, to processing it.
Dan: 17:43 Yeah, and it's a really great way... A product calling itself something free, antibiotic free, completely throws shade on the rest of the category. The rest of the category might also be antibiotic free, they just never thought to say it so by one brand saying that's the thing that we're going to focus on and we're gonna direct your attention mister or misses consumer at focusing on as well, it makes you question what everyone else is doing and hopefully pick that product off the shelf.
Mel: 18:08 Yeah, have you got any other examples in the marketing field?
Dan: 18:10 So examples of this are basically any time that a brand gives you a new way to shop a category, a new way to think about a purchase decision. So in supermarkets are this is everywhere but if you think about things like even the world of workouts. At the moment we are in the middle of this F45 explosion. F45 decided that of all the different ways you could evaluate a workout, portion of aerobic to anaerobic activity or where it happens. Or how it happens, or how much fun it is or how mindful it is.
Mel: 18:38 Or how much weight you can lose and how quickly.
Dan: 18:39 How much weight you can lose yeah. Their thing is 45 minutes. F45 they're like focus on 45 the F might even be for focus I don't know. Maybe it's for fitness, maybe it's for fun … I don't know. Anyway the thing that is not ambiguous is that it's 45. So they're saying, " Hey people out there looking to buy into some sort of a fitness routine slash cult, if 45 minutes is important for you that's a thing important for us. Focus here."
Dan: 19:02 And then it makes you wonder yeah well how long does Zumba take? How long does crossfit take? I don't know.
Mel: 19:06 And maybe I don't have time for it but I have 45 minutes.
Dan: 19:09 Definitely have 45 minutes because that's less than an hour.
Mel: 19:11 Yeah.
Dan: 19:12 So that's what us ad guys do but what can the poor consumer do to defend?
Mel: 19:16 Yeah, well I see this in my line or work as well right. You know how you talk about F45 being like a thing of the moment? Another big thing literally of the moment is the whole mindfulness craze or phase or whatever you want to call it? And the whole idea of mindfulness could be said to be based around the Focusing Illusion. The idea that mindfulness for example is a cure for anxiety. Right when people are anxious most of the time they're anxious about something that may or may not happen in the future. Mindfulness works by directing peoples attention to the present with the understanding that you have a limited capacity to only attend to really one thing at a time. If you're attending to the present it's actually impossible to be anxious right then because anxiety is about projecting into the future and if you're focusing on what's happening here and now, then that is all that you can be.
Mel: 20:03 And that is all that your brain has the capacity to think about. So mindfulness is a therapeutic method you know. We've got the Focusing Illusion coming into market, coming into psychology … it's everywhere.
Dan: 20:13 Yeah feels like we've kind of gone the long way around but actually what we're saying is in this whole crazy, complicated landscape of things that you could spend your time and attention focusing on, sometimes a thing will just wave its hand and say, "Hey look at me! Look at me! Look at me!" And that's really all our brain is capable of doing.
Mel: 20:27 Yeah and the flip side of that for you to sort of counteract it is to realise that you can actually control the object of your attention. You can choose what you want to focus on at any given moment and that is going to be the most important thing to you at that time.
Dan: 20:39 Right, well that sounds kind of profound.
Mel: 20:41 Do you like it?
Dan: 20:42 I like it.
Mel: 20:42 Cool. So there's something more profound.
Dan: 20:44 Yeah?
Mel: 20:45 That was the Dr. Mel way of saying it but Danny Kahneman said it differently.
Dan: 20:49 Danny?
Mel: 20:50 We're friends now. (laughs)
Dan: 20:52 D.K? Yeah what did he say?
Mel: 20:55 His quote when he was asked pretty much what's like the most important information that you could give, the most useful information that you could to a lay person, he said, "Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it."
Dan: 21:08 Nothing is as ... wait.
Mel: 21:10 (laughs) That's not what he said. He said, "Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it."
Dan: 21:16 Yeah so the thing you're thinking about right now is the most important thing that you think it is but it's really not it only is because you're thinking about it.
Mel: 21:23 Yeah!
Dan: 21:24 Yeah? (laughs)
Mel: 21:25 It sounded more profound when he said it.
Dan: 21:27 Yeah well I've remixed it for a new generation.
Mel: 21:30 And I think that's a really good way to sort of sum it up. When you're thinking about something it is the most important thing, it's dominating your focus. And you know when people say don't respond in the moment, take 24 hours and respond after? It's because you've got perspective and you've got a different context in which to see it afterwards. And it doesn't seem as important 24 hours later as it does at the time that it happened.
Dan: 21:50 Always save your rage emails as drafts first and it you still think it's a good idea to send it the next morning go right ahead.
Mel: 21:55 There you go. (laughs)
Dan: 21:56 Yeah that's my profound wisdom.
Mel: 21:58 Yep so that's where we're at, I think we've covered the Focusing Illusion.
Dan: 22:02 Yep!
Mel: 22:02 We've focused on it for long enough and we know it has been the most important thing for the last 20 odd minutes of your lives as it has for ours.
Dan: 22:09 Yeah I think we've also just explained how all magic works as well so that's a pretty good episode.
Mel: 22:13 Yeah tune in for more magic next time.
Dan: 22:15 Yeah alright where do people find us?
Mel: 22:17 They'll find us on the internet @DrMelW
Dan: 22:20 Oh that's you and they'll find me at also on the internet @DanMonheit
Mel: 22:23 Search the internet.
Dan: 22:24 Yeah.
Mel: 22:24 Google things.
Dan: 22:25 Can we say, I mean it's going to timestamp but, can we say that you're also going to find us at South by Southwest next year?
Mel: 22:29 Oh my god.
Dan: 22:29 Yeah!
Mel: 22:30 Dan is so excited guys.
Dan: 22:31 Yeah Mel and I are going to be presenting at South by Southwest, Austin Texas, March 2019. Come and see us in the flesh.
Mel: 22:40 So much magic, it's going to be so much magic.
Dan: 22:42 Yeah, I've got my cowboy boots ready.
Mel: 22:44 Can't wait.
Dan: 22:44 Peace out.