When Focus Comes at a Price

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “The High Cost of Low Focus,” by Max H. Bazerman (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Has someone (perhaps a significant other) ever told you that you’ve previously seen or heard something that you don’t recall? When someone says, “I already told you that!” in exasperation, do you assume that the person is wrong, or do you consider that you may have failed to focus on the information when it was presented to you? Research suggests that you may have failed to focus on the information.

David Schkade of the University of Texas and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University use the term focusing illusion to describe the tendency of individuals making judgments to pay attention to only a portion of available and relevant information, then to overweight that information and underweight other information. For instance, a study these researchers conducted found geographical location did not significantly affect participants’ life satisfaction. But when participants were asked to rate the life satisfaction of someone similar to them who lived in another location, Californians were rated as being more satisfied than Midwesterners. In other words, the study participants focused on an obvious difference from themselves in living situation—climate—and ignored the importance of other life events.

Our ability to focus helps us succeed in many areas of life, from test taking to creative pursuits to relationships. But intense focus can come at a cost when it prevents us from noticing very obvious and important cues in our environment.

In negotiation, an overly narrow focus can become a significant handicap. As an example, long-term concerns are commonly out of focus during negotiations; short-term concerns drive the discussion, though long-term concerns are often more crucial. This narrow focus can lead to big losses. In one real-life joint venture, Firm A had the funds that Firm B needed to develop and market a new product. The firms pushed hard to reach an agreement, and before long a multibillion-dollar innovation was born. But in their zeal to close the deal, the companies failed to focus on numerous ambiguities. To date, the two companies have spent more than $350 million, not to mention a significant amount of executives’ time, fighting over which side owns which part of the market. A bit more focus during the negotiation on long-term implementation would have been well worth each company’s time.

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