Walking down the road you notice a paraplegic in your way. You become a little conscious and try to avoid eye-contact. Maybe you feel pity for that person. Maybe you think “what an unfortunate and sad life”. You walk some more and notice a couple happily frolicking with their two beautiful dogs. An inner force makes you resists you from looking at that couple for too long. Over exposure of that scene may hurt your ego or may force you to feel bad about your own life. You continue walking and two minutes later on a traffic light, you notice a couple fighting inside the car. This makes you feel better for some reason. Maybe this scene offsets the previous one with a happy couple.
Observing people and instantly evaluating their emotional state of mind based on superficial features, is a very human thing to do. This is sometimes followed by a comparison with your own mental state, especially if things aren’t so great in your own mind. But when humans engage in this behavior, they run into multiple biases.
Focusing illusion is one such bias. We tend to focus our attention on immediately noticeable differences while comparing two or more objects. When comparing someone super rich to a person from middle class let’s say, our brain almost always tells us that the person with riches must be happier. Not true as it turns out. On average, there is only a mild correlation between income and happiness. But we only notice whatever features of a person happen to be available for noticing and then assign more importance to those features while evaluating happiness. When it comes to income and happiness, features could be anything from big houses to beautiful cars. Our culture celebrates these objects and this is why we assign more importance to them.
Focusing illusion is not necessarily a bug in our thinking. More accurately, it is a mental shortcut that helps us quickly come to a conclusion. Doesn’t matter that on some occassions it’s a wrong conclusion, if there are enough right ones. After all, this illusion can even help someone with low esteem to instantly (although only briefly) boost their morale. They just have to seletively observe the most unfortunate people in third world countries1.
So the next time your brain observes a superficially happy or sad life, notice that and then observe your own intuitive thinking. Ask youself, what exactly about that person am I basing my judgment on? What hidden features about that person could I be missing that could better indicate their happiness index? Are there any such features in me, that when evaluated, will make people think incorrectly about my own mental states?
Yes, all of this thinking is hard work. It requires that you learn new ways to think about the world around you. This is extremely hard because you are not supposed to ask such questions with your innate or culturally acquired tools. Unfortunately, without this new toolkit for thinking, you will helplessly fall into the trap of constantly comparing yourself to others. Wait, let me rephrase that last sentence. Withou this new toolkit for thinking, you will helplessly fall into the trap of constantly comparing the best or worst you know of yourself to the worst or best you presume about others.
This strategy doesn’t work very often because we tend to compare ourselves with only people from our own social stratum. ↩