Many decisions that we make in life are subjective, without a “right answer.” We weigh the benefits and drawbacks and make the best choice we can based on the information we have. Giving your brain some time to sort through the data points available can increase the chances of making the best choice possible. However, when you don’t provide it with time, sometimes we emphasize the wrong information, which results in less than optimal decisions. It’s called Focalism, and it’s a significant reason why we sometimes make mistakes.
We discussed Focalism in a recent podcast and how it works in our decision-making. One of the ways you can avoid making mistakes in decisions is to give part of your brain some time to sort out the details while you distract another part of your mind with something else.
A group of Dutch researchers tested this idea of giving the brain some time to manage complex choices regarding decision-making. The research team gave people a complex decision, choosing an apartment to lease among three options. The team gave participants a bunch of information about each of these apartments. Then, people had to decide within different conditions. However, in this case, the choice was not subjective; there was a “best” apartment. The research team stacked the deck in favor of one.
The researchers wanted to see how people chose the best apartment and how likely people were to make that choice if they changed the decision conditions. Sometimes participants had to make an immediate decision about the apartment. The researchers had other participants think about the apartment for a while and then make a decision. In the third condition, the research team distracted people by having them work on something else for a few minutes and then returning to the apartment question and making their choice.
So, which decision condition had the best outcome? The one that resulted in the highest number of correct choices was when researchers distracted people for a few minutes before the participant made a decision. By forcing participants to think about something else, the participant’s Intuitive System, the fast, automatic thinking we have hard-wired into our brains, could process the information properly.
One of the ways you can avoid making mistakes in decisions is to give part of your brain some time to sort out the details while you distract another part of your mind with something else.
And which decision had the worst outcome? The condition that resulted in the fewest number of correct apartment choices was when participants thought about it for a bit. The reason why that condition resulted in the worst option was Focalism.
How Focalism Works
We have these two systems that we use to make decisions, the Intuitive System and the Rational System. We use both for different things and also in conjunction with each other. That’s because each of them has their strengths.
When you get a bunch of information, our Rational Systems, which are the slow and deliberate thinking systems our brains have, tend to grab at one or two points of information and make decisions based on those instead of on the breadth of the data received. These chosen points are what cause Focalism. We tend to over-focus on individual pieces of information in our decision-making instead of incorporating all the information that we should.
However, one of the things that our Intuitive System is better at is incorporating large amounts of information and putting it together in a useful way. However, it needs time for this activity and occurs while the Rational System is doing something else. For example, when we sleep at night, our Rational Minds are also resting, which allows our Intuitive System to process the day’s data. The next morning, the Rational System is well-rested, and the Intuitive System has organized information from the day before to help you make better decisions in the day ahead.
This idea of distracting the Rational Mind to avoid Focalism could be why I have my best ideas in the shower or when I’m playing my guitar or fishing. When I’m doing those things, they occupy my Rational mind, so I might suddenly get an excellent idea, courtesy of my Intuitive System’s work organizing data points in the background.
Focalism Gets In The Way of Good Decisions Sometimes
The Rational System is excellent for focus, and that’s one of the strengths of them. One of the weaknesses of them is they’re great at concentration, so they’ll tend to zero in on certain things.
Now, this wouldn’t be a massive problem if we always zeroed in on the essential stuff. But usually, we tend to overemphasize the most salient or available or easy-to-process information, and that’s when we exaggerate its significance. It leads to a limited view of the problem as a whole. As a result, Focalism leads to mental blocks where we can’t get around something because our rational system is so occupied by focusing on that one exaggerated point.
So, suppose it is a complex decision with many different types of information to integrate. In that case, customers will make better decisions with which they will be happy in the long term if they allow their Intuitive System to incorporate it before acting. If customers have to make complex decisions in a high-pressure situation where the Rational System is trying to justify things, on average, customers will fall victim to Focalism. It will overemphasize certain parts of information that will usually lead to worse decisions.
Justification Doesn’t Always Lead to Successful Long-Term Decisions
I often say that people decide to buy emotionally and then justify rationally. Justification is a rational process. Focusing people on that way of making decisions directs them to note a few easy-to-justify attributes.
Researchers demonstrate this concept in a study from the 1970s. The research team had undergraduates choose between five posters. Some of the posters featured artwork; some were humorous. For one group, the research team asked the participants to write down the reasons they liked or didn’t like each of the posters, and then the participants could pick their favorite poster and take it home. For the other group, the research team showed them the posters and said, “Pick one and take it.”
The results showed that the participants who had to justify their choices were more likely to choose humorous posters than the art posters. The researchers suggest this was the case because funny or witty was a more natural justification for participants than the fact that the picture was pretty. However, the undergrads who didn’t justify their decisions still had the poster up in their dorm room weeks later, ostensibly because the more integrative decisions made a better decision for the long run than the rationally-justified ones.
So, What Should You Do About This?
There are a couple of practical applications for what we know about how Focalism affects customer behavior regarding decision-making, including:
- Ensure you understand how customer make decisions. Designing a Customer Experience that incorporates what you know about customer behavior in decision making is essential. We recommend you engage in specific training that focuses on this area. By embracing the Behavioral Sciences and focusing on the emotional, subconscious, and psychological experience, you can help customers make the best possible decisions for themselves that will lead to better outcomes in the long-run—for both of you.
- Recognize the moments or features that inspire Focalism in your customers’ decision process. You can anticipate what those pieces of information are by whether it is easy-to-remember, easy-to-articulate, salient, available, or noticeable. All those things are more likely to be the focus of their evaluations and decisions, so play to those attributes and ensure these information moments are excellent and not terrible.
- Spot Focalism in yourself. When you’re making a complex decision, something with lots of moving parts or information, it would be best to distract yourself with another activity, like a walk or calling a friend, to give your mind time to sort through the information. Do something else to get yourself away from this decision and occupy that rational part of your brain so that your Intuitive System can integrate more of the information.
- Test your results if you make changes. There are a lot of things going on in a Customer Experience. Suppose you decide to address the part of the experience influenced by Focalism, test to see what happens against what you have always done. Too many organizations go all or nothing and don’t know if the changes they make are making a difference.
Designing a Customer Experience that incorporates what you know about customer behavior in decision making is essential.
Focalism is a bias we all share that weights certain features and benefits as more important than they sometimes are because they are easier to compare or remember. When we reason about something, the bias grows stronger. Then, we will overemphasize less essential features more than we should in our decision-making.
We make the best decisions by allowing the Intuitive System time for integrating and organizing information. It’s why we sometimes are struck with brilliance when we are in the shower or casting a line into the Gulf. It’s also why when we rush things, we make mistakes in our decision making, which means even a decision you made that didn’t necessarily have a right answer ends up feeling all wrong.
To hear more about this idea in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.
Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX