In “Being a Proverbial Student” I stress the importance of gaining knowledge, understanding and hopefully wisdom. To those ends, I stress the value of ideas. The recent mass shootings, without disparaging the tragic nature of the events, create an excellent opportunity for understanding one very important idea for being wise: what psychologists call the Focusing Effect.
The ability to focus is a good trait. But when we place excessive importance on one or more aspects of an event and fail to recognize other factors the Focusing Effect occurs.
Are there more murders or suicides in America? Most people respond murders when in fact the correct answer is suicides. Because the press puts so much attention on murders and most suicides are private, the Focusing Effect causes lost perspective and an incorrect conclusion.
The media, marketers and political spin doctors use the Focusing Effect (also called Focusing Illusion) to convince us of the necessary features of a product or to exaggerate the importance of particular issues; a major reason we get diatribe not dialog.
According to the best evidence I could find, as of today, approximately 248 mass shootings have occurred in the US resulting in 246 deaths. Three of the mass shootings resulted in more than 10 deaths with two of those occurring in the same weekend two weeks ago.
The mass murders in El Paso and Dayton are deplorable. Unfortunately, the follow up events are predictable with diatribe from both sides. No one listens to the other side. No one is willing to accept strengths in an opposing view or weaknesses in his or her personal view; diatribe not dialog, no progress.
The left shouts gun control and mocks the other side; diatribe not dialog, no progress. The right shouts mental illness and mocks the other side; diatribe not dialog, no progress.
One reason for the lack of dialog and progress is the failure to understand the Focusing Effect.
Focusing Effect and Mass Shootings
Understandably, mass shootings with multiple deaths easily create the Focusing Effect in human thinking. The unique nature of the event gets our attention. The fact that several died at one event gets our attention. Innocent people dying, gets our attention. The intense emotions get our attention.
All of the factors combine in such a manner that we lose perspective. Again that is understandable because keeping perspective is very difficult with intense emotional situations. However a person with knowledge of the Focusing Effect would have the possibility of a wider perspective of the situation. A wider perspective gives hope for wisdom.
Perspective and Mass Shootings
If something wiped out a city of 40,000 people in one event, can you imagine the outcry? Everyone would be deeply, deeply concerned and highly emotional.
But spread out 40,000 deaths over a year’s time and in many locations in the US and our focus is dispersed. Approximately 40,000 deaths occur each year on the highways in America. That is approximately 109 people a day die on our highways. Since the 109 are spread across America, we do not focus on the problem as intensely as 22 deaths in El Paso or 10 in Dayton.
On August 4, 32 deaths from two mass shootings occurred. Thankfully, no major mass shooting has occurred since that time. I am writing this on August 12 which means approximately 800 deaths have occurred on America highways since the horror of the mass shootings. Have the press, the politicians or anyone gotten as excited about 800 deaths as they did after the 32 in one weekend from mass shootings? Obviously, the answer is no.
Ask anyone which is worse, 40,000 deaths or 248? Seems obvious, but the power of the Focusing Effect as found in the aftermath of a mass shooting makes 248 loom larger than 40,000.
I hope my example makes the Focusing Effect very clear. Please remember. I am not making a political statement about guns or mass shootings but trying to show the power of an idea. I am not saying we should not attack the problem of mass shooting. I am saying as we attack any issue we should always keep it in perspective.
We are all upset about mass shootings, rightfully so; but if you have perspective you remain aware of much bigger threats to life in America.
A Curse of Wisdom
Wisdom is a blessing, but at times a curse; difficult to gain, sometimes dangerous to practice. Assume you are in a meaningful conversation about where we should put government resources, and you have the perspective automobile accidents are a much more serious problem than mass shootings. You may take a big chance to express that opinion. You are apt to be faced with loud, highly emotional diatribe. People, who do not understand the Focusing Effect, are likely to accuse you of favoring Trump, hating immigration, white supremacy, need for gun legislation and a variety of other factors unrelated to your point.
We can and should be concerned about mass murders while keeping the number of deaths in other situations in perspective.
As a Christian, I find encouragement for keeping perspective from two verses, the first one a personal favorite: Mathew 7:3 “Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” Clearly Jesus’ question is chiding us and encouraging us to develop a proper perspective. Another verse is Luke 20:25: “Render to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s”; clearly another statement encouraging a proper perspective.
We are human. The Focusing Effect is a powerful human tendency. When we are in the middle of the focusing effect, extracting ourselves and gaining perspective can be extremely difficult. The first helpful step is to understand it – then think with it. Look at problems from many angles, and weigh several factors before making decisions. My hope is– understand the Focusing Effect helps all of us gain or keep perspective.
If we can avoid tunnel vision (or at least acknowledge that it may exist), we can improve our chances for proper dialog, making sound choices, and becoming wiser. We need this in our homes, churches, schools, work, and government. We cannot control others but let’s do what we can in our sphere of influence.
Until next week