Focusing Illusion

June 1, 2020

Louis Tay

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. None of us have been untouched in some way, shape, or form. We are beset daily with negative news surrounding COVID-19. 

Many places are now easing stay-at-home regulations. This has created unease and new fears about health and safety. 

How can we maintain well-being and remain resilient amidst all of this? 

This week, I encourage us to be mindful of the focusing illusion. 

The focusing illusion was coined by the psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. People have a tendency to focus on one aspect of their lives while ignoring other aspects. For example, when prompted to think about their income before rating their well-being, people automatically overweigh the importance of income for well-being. 

Marketers exploit the focusing illusion to exaggerate the importance of a product. They want you to believe that nothing else matters for your happiness except for what is being advertised. 

The focusing illusion applies to COVID-19 too. We believe that nothing else matters except for not being infected or finding a cure. This is not surprising given that it is a new phenomenon that has affected us significantly. We are routinely exposed to news and conversations around it. 

Yet, we need to be mindful that we can unwittingly believe -- implicitly or explicitly -- that COVID-19 is the be and end all for our well-being. We instinctively attach our happiness, life narrative, and life plans solely around COVID-19. This can cripple our well-being. 

Daniel Kahneman reminds us: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it” 

While COVID-19 is significant, it is important to emphasize other aspects of your life that also matter – and they can matter more than COVID-19. 

Thinking about Health beyond COVID-19 

While there are many other positive or negative aspects of our lives to think about beyond COVID-19. I would like to emphasize here some of the ways we have overcome significant health challenges as a society. 

Recent research published in Health Affairs  estimates the infection mortality rates of COVID-19 to be around 1.3%. 

This is startling compared to the seasonal flu at around 0.1%.  

It is also staggering compared to the motor vehicle fatality rates within the United States, which is also around 0.1% for the entire population of 300 million each year. 

It emphasizes the deadliness of COVID-19. Yet – we need to also consider the cumulative probability of encountering health challenges being exposed to the seasonal flu, or over the years we have stepped into a car or bus.  

I ask myself this question: What is my lifetime probability of encountering significant health challenges from these other factors? 

I won’t calculate these subjective final probabilities for my life time because it would reveal my own assumptions about stochastic sequences of life events. But even worse, it would reveal my age. 

Suffice to say, when I consider COVID-19 in light of many other possible health challenges over my lifetime, it surprisingly helps me unfocus from the pandemic. 

More importantly, it reminds me that I have led my life amidst these threats to my health – and I can continue my living my life. I can continue to find beauty and hope in life. I can continue to enjoy my relationships. I can continue to find meaning and purpose in my work. 

It also strengthens my resolve to take precautions based on best health practices. I vaccinate for seasonal flu. I wear my seat belt when I ride in a car. I now wear a mask in enclosed public spaces. 

Unfocusing from COVID-19 brings a new focus to other aspects of life. It also gives me strength to know that I have and I can overcome.  

What about you?

Be well,

Dr. Louis Tay

Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science. Check back each week for his wellness tip of the week!

Student Life and its staff are here to support you as you work to remain resilient, avoid over focusing on the pandemic and reimagine health beyond COVID-19. The Office of the Dean of Students has support staff available to students over the summer and Counseling and Psychological Services is offering referrals. Student Life will continue to offer supportive programs to students and the campus population.


Office of the Dean of Students, Student Support Services

Counseling and Psychological Services

Virtual Student Life


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