Every few days, my attention will be grabbed by some new thing (or, on occasion, some old thing that had slipped my mind). Maybe it’s a movie. Maybe it’s a board game. Maybe it’s a new gadget. Maybe it’s a book. Whatever that thing is, something about it sucks in my attention.
Trent Hamm is a personal finance writer at TheSimpleDollar.com.
I’ll read an article about it or watch a video related to it and suddenly that item is on my mind. I’ll think about it as I go through my day. When my mind wanders, often it’s that book or that game that slips right into my conscious thought. I think about the topic that it covers and the fun I would have reading that book or playing that game.
The more I do this, the more strongly I feel about that item. The positive impact that the item would have on my life grows and grows in my mind, often to ridiculous proportions. This book would literally change how I think about the world. This gadget would completely alter how efficiently I can work and get things done. This game would be a huge hit with my game group, bring many hours of fun, and get played over and over again.
Over time, those consistent thoughts start over-inflating all of the positive traits of the item and completely washing away all of the negative traits. I’ll notice more and more people having that item or similar items. I’ll find more and more offhand references to that item in the things I see and do. I become more and more convinced that I must have this item.
More often than I’d like, all of that winds up with a purchase. More often than I’d like, after I make the purchase, the item really wasn’t all that life-changing after all.
A few days or a week later, the whole cycle starts again with something new.
Sound familiar? This is something called attentional bias at work. Here’s a description from Wikipedia:
Attentional bias is the tendency of our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. For example, people who frequently think about the clothes they wear pay more attention to the clothes of others.
In other words, if you have recurring positive thoughts about something, your overall impression of that thing is going to become more and more positive and you’re going to become more and more aware of it in the world. (The same thing is true — if you have recurring negative thoughts about something, your impression is going to grow more and more negative and you’re also going to be more aware of it.)
As you can imagine, this doesn’t just pop up in our desire to buy things or own things. It pops up in things like our political beliefs, our intellectual interests, and so on.
If we give something our mental attention, our perception of it is going to change due to that prolonged attention, with that perception often becoming very exaggerated based on small details. The things we give our attention to — often the positive things if it’s something we’re interested in or that we desire — tend to blow themselves completely out of proportion.
People will often do this when they first fall in love with someone and develop a small crush on that person. They will take the positive traits they see in that person and grow and grow and grow them until that person is put on an unrealistic pedestal.
I’ll give you another example using my hobby of playing board games. I might read about a particular board game online that sounds interesting. In my head, I’ll imagine playing it with my game group. If the description is particularly interesting, my thoughts about the game will be very positive. If the thoughts start recurring, meaning that they pop up in my casual thinking, it won’t be long before I start to imagine the game getting played over and over and over and how it will be a huge hit with my game group and with my family and how it will lead to a lot of great social and intellectual experiences. Eventually, if I don’t recognise what’s happening and do something to correct it, it begins to seem like a no-brainer to spend some of my hobby money on that game. When I do it — and I often will if I don’t do something about my attentional bias — I’ll almost always find that it isn’t the mega-hit that I hoped it would be.
Another example: I have a friend who is obsessed with playing his guitar. He has spent absurd amounts of money on various instruments and various items to accompany those instruments. He perceives these giant differences between different guitars and different strings. Sure, I can hear differences between them sometimes, but he’ll spend hundreds of dollars on a new guitar or modifications to an old guitar only to have the change be so minor that I literally can’t hear it. To him, the differences are huge and highly important; to me, since my attention is not focused on those differences, they’re essentially nonexistent.
Think about your own life. Have you ever fallen prey to attentional bias? Think about some of the things you’ve wanted the most in your life. Did you exaggerate the positive traits of that thing completely out of proportion? Did you end up talking yourself into making a purchase or taking an action that you probably wouldn’t have done had you not blown those positive traits out of proportion?
That’s the challenge of attentional bias, and it crops up more often than you think.
It’s well worth your time to try to combat attentional bias when it crops up in your life. It’s perfectly fine to have a deep interest in something, but when that deep interest is skewing your buying habits into an area where you’re spending lots of extra money on that interest, you may want to check whether or not attentional bias is affecting your spending and put that attentional bias (and that extra spending) in check. Here are some ways to do just that.
Talk to Trusted People Who Aren’t as Focused
If you’re considering spending your hard-earned money on something you’ve been talking yourself into, stop before you buy and talk to someone you know that you trust first. Ask what they think, but try not to load the question. Seek out their unvarnished opinion on whatever it is you’re considering doing or buying.
Make sure that you use a person that you truly trust for this, because you’ll need to trust what they tell you, even if it doesn’t match what you want to hear. Remember, they’re not succumbing to attentional bias as you might be, so they’re often seeing things outside of the distorted fun house mirror that attentional bias can create.
One difficulty with this is finding someone who knows a little about your area of interest, but isn’t as focused on it as you are. Find someone who is casually interested in the item you’re talking about. If you find someone with zero interest, there’s a good chance that they will have little idea of what you’re talking about. If you find someone with a very deep interest, they’re probably subject to many of the same attentional biases that you are.
For example, I often use my wife for these things. She has some interest in the things that I am passionate about and knows about them, but she doesn’t hold the same burning passion in many of those areas. Thus, she’s a good person to help me figure out whether something makes sense as a purchase or not.
Do Research and Look Primarily for Criticism
Whenever I find myself locked into that cycle of hyper-inflating the quality of an item, I choose to start doing more research on the item. In particular, I look for negative reviews and criticism of that item.
What’s not good about it? Are there other options that are better choices (I particularly like these, especially if the other options are ones that I already own or have experience with)? In what areas is this product not up to snuff?
I’ve found that, time and time again, a negative review of an item can shatter that fun house mirror quite effectively. It can bring me right back down to earth about an item and make me see that perhaps it would not be a good idea to spend a lot of money on that item.
Give Yourself a Thirty Day Waiting Period
I’ve referred to this concept in the past as the “thirty day rule,” and it definitely holds true when combating attentional bias. Giving yourself thirty days before you take any action regarding that purchase gives your mind plenty of time to move onto other things — and it often will.
What I’ve found is that many of the things that grab my focus for a while tend to hold onto it for a week or two and then, if I don’t take action on that desire, it will naturally start to fade out and my mind will move onto other things. What happens, I think, is that a mix of the other strategies plus my own subconscious mind come together to cause me to subconsciously realise that I’m over-inflating that item, and when it comes back down to earth I no longer have that overwhelming interest in it.
Thus, when the thirty days are up, it becomes pretty easy to say “no” to that item. I’m no longer hyper-inflating the positive traits of the item and I have a much more realistic grasp on what the item is and what role it would fill in my life.
Time is one of the most effective responses to attentional bias. If there’s a true quality factor involved there, time won’t sand it away, but if it’s just an inflated perspective due to your short-term focus, time will cause those inflated traits to disappear.
Intentionally Explore Other Interests
Whenever I find myself focused on a particular item, it’s usually because that particular area of my life has been receiving a lot of my attention lately. For example, if I’m becoming unduly focused on a board game, that means I’ve been strongly focused on board games as of late, for better or worse.
Like many people, I wish to lead a balanced life when it comes to my hobbies and personal interests, so whenever I see attentional bias coming to the forefront, it’s a call for me to focus on other things for a while.
I’ll spend some days hiking. I’ll spend a few hours reading a book when I might have spent it organising or reading board game rules. I’ll do anything other than touching on that area of interest that has driven me to obsess over that one purchase.
Almost always, intentional focus on those other areas of life quickly causes my attentional bias to cool off. I take that object that I was so focused on off of the pedestal and it quickly returns to normal proportions, which means I’m quickly much less interested in buying it.
Look at the Realities of Your Life in Unbiased Ways
How much time do I really spend playing board games? How much time do I really spend watching movies or playing video games or reading books? The truth is that, as much as I love doing those things, the time devoted to each in a given month is actually fairly small.
Now, how much time can I free up for this new purchase? It will take away from the time spent on the things I already have. I have board games I haven’t played nearly enough to explore the strategic corners. I have movies that have only been watched once or haven’t been watched at all. I have several unread books and a library full of more unread books.
The reality is that my life really doesn’t have much room to enjoy many of the things that I would buy, so I owe it to myself to be very careful about additional purchases. I don’t have tons of free time as it is, so finding free time for this new thing is actually pretty tough.
Consider the Opportunity Cost
The phrase “opportunity cost” simply refers to the fact that whenever you spend time or money on something, that means that you’re simultaneously unable to spend that time or money on anything else, which is a hidden “cost” of using that time or energy.
For example, if I spend $US1,000 ($1,308) on a new television, that means that I’m unable to spend that $US1,000 ($1,308) saving for retirement or paying off debt or buying a new pair of hiking boots (and $US800 ($1,047) worth of other stuff).
When you’re obsessing over something due to attentional bias, you can still be aware of the opportunity cost of buying that item, and quite often that knowledge is enough to create a seed of doubt about your purchase. Sure, you could buy this item you’re obsessing over, but look at the things you can’t buy now as a result of that purchase.
It’s a great little trick to use to talk yourself out of all kinds of purchases.
Take a Different Action
Quite often, the pressure that you put on yourself to buy this item due to your continued focus on it can be punctured if you simply take a different action related to that item.
For example, you might choose to add the item to your Amazon wish list rather than buying it, or you might choose to take a picture of it and send it to a friend who may someday buy it for you as a gift. You might choose to write about it in your pocket notebook or your journal.
Often, taking some tangible action beyond merely thinking about the item can burst that bubble of intense focus that you have regarding the item. By simply doing something about it, you can create a sense of relief from all of that focus. You did something, so that’s often enough.
I personally like the “Amazon wish list” strategy myself. I’ll put stuff on there and, quite often, my desire for that item fades very quickly.
Clear Your Mind
One of the best practices I’ve ever added to my life is that of focused meditation. I do this at least twice a day and it has done an incredible amount to help me clear my mind from distraction and help me focus on the task at hand.
Whenever I am regular in my practice of focused meditation, I find that attentional bias is much, much less severe in my life. I don’t simply lock into one thing and become obsessed with it. Instead, I find that I’m able to hold my attention and focus on things without quickly falling into a trap of overinflating the positives.
In other words, focused meditation enables me to be much more rational about evaluating the positives and negatives of something I’m thinking about. It provides something of a subconscious safeguard against falling into the trap of attentional bias.
If you want to give focused meditation a shot, I recommend starting at Calm.com. It works on almost any device and provides great guided meditation for focusing.
All of these strategies serve one purpose: they help fight against attentional bias. Attentional bias is what happens when you become overly focused on a single thing, as you begin to distort the true features of that item. You inflate the importance of some features far beyond their actual importance compared to other features or other things in the real world, and it can easily lead to incredibly strong desires to purchase that item.
Attentional bias is something that happens to all of us. For me, it can happen pretty frequently if I don’t stay ahead of it, so I use these strategies constantly to keep it at bay. I don’t want to fall into that mindset of excessive expectations, because not only is it expensive, it usually ends up with disappointment — the money’s gone and I’m holding something that didn’t live up to what I expected of it once the “honeymoon” wears off and I no longer have that attentional bias.
If you find yourself in that cycle — obsessing over a particular item, eventually talking yourself into buying it, and then feeling disappointment when the newness wears off and you realise it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be — use some of these strategies. They really help in combating one of the primary ingredients in that recipe for overspending.
If I had to suggest one tactic above all the others, try focused meditation. I find that it cleans up my thinking incredibly well and helps me see when I’m falling into the trap of attentional bias. It also simply helps me get through my day-to-day life and greatly helps me with my focus on workplace tasks.