In a recent blog, I wrote about the new Michael Lewis book, “The Undoing Project.” The book chronicles the groundbreaking research of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have been described as “psychology’s Lennon and McCartney,” so important was their work.
In the blog, I erroneously described them as “two Princeton University psychologists.” Actually, only one of the pair worked at Princeton—Kahneman, who has been there since 1993. Tversky was at Stanford University at the time of his death in 1996.
This is all background for an interesting email I got last week from Adam Dickter, a public relations guy, who sent me the following:
I am reaching out on behalf of theHebrew University of Jerusalem. Your 12/12 article on “The Undoing Project” refers to professors Kahneman and Tversky as faculty of Princeton University.
At the time of their groundbreaking research, they were at The Hebrew University. Daniel Kahneman became a Princeton professor in 1993.
May we request a correction?
I’d like to think that this blog is read by all kinds of people in far-flung regions of the world. These people think, “What ever will Katrina write about this Wednesday?” After a few moments of that pure, sweet writer’s joy of recognition, I realized that Adam got a Google notice based on a few keywords that alerted him.
I started to write this blog purely about how Adam’s request for a correction pleased me so. Turnkey leverages the power of recognition to influence people to support a host of causes and organizations. And even though I know the mechanics of recognition inside out, Adam delighted me because he saw me. He read me. He recognized me.
Then, the beloved—Otis Fulton, consumer behavior expert and expert morning coffee maker at our house—redirected me.
So a couple of things. First, this blog is the requested correction. Second, it also got Otis thinking about the importance of the work that Adam and other PR professionals do, and exactly why they do it. PR is about keeping an organization or person appropriately positioned, but more importantly, to keep that person or organization top of mind.
Why is keeping organizations—Hebrew University, for example—top of mind important? Why is Adam, the PR professional, working hard to make sure Hebrew University received attribution? Standard answer: to protect the brand.
Like everything else, the answer is not as simple as it seems.
Daniel Kahneman himself actually writes about this. In 2011, he was asked by an online discussion site to talk about one scientific concept that would most contribute to people’s understanding of the world. His choice was “the focusing illusion.” The idea is summarized by the title of the piece he wrote: “Nothing in Life Is as Important as You Think It Is While You Are Thinking About It.”
Why do we attach overblown importance to whatever it is we happen to be focusing on? It’s because we have a limited store of attention. And we spend this attention on those things that have the most significance for us in a given moment. Often, we get it right—attending to a stranger approaching us on a dark street, a strange noise in the night when we are in bed, our boss addressing her staff. But like with most of our cognitive habits, there is a catch. We can get tricked into thinking that something is important simply because we are focused on it. To focus us is Adam’s job.
And that focus sometimes can make us less happy and more afraid. As an example, statistically, you are more likely to be killed by falling furniture in your home than by a terrorist attack. But because falling furniture is rarely the topic of 24/7 news coverage, you attach greater importance to terrorist attacks, in spite of the low likelihood of your being attacked, because you have been focused on it by associated reporting.
Many people believe that they would be happier if they just made more money. And people who make more money do enjoy a better mood than those with lower incomes. But the difference is far less than you would expect—only a third of what people think. As Kahneman concludes, whatever you are focused on may make a difference, but “the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.”
We’ve all seen a family member or friend focus on something inconsequential, like a haircut, to the point it takes on an inappropriate amount of importance, haven’t we? This person has spent all his or her focus on this one thing. It really feels important to them.
And that is the charm of Adam’s outreach. He is focusing us to increase the importance in our collective minds of Hebrew University and of Kahneman and Tversky.
The tool of creating focus can help you raise money. To use ALS or cystic fibrosis as examples, focus on those conditions has generated revenue in much larger amounts than incidence in the general population of these conditions would indicate as typical. These organizations’ clever fundraisers and marketers increased their mind-share; they made us focus on those issues. They increased the importance in our minds of those conditions. And they raised a bunch of money.
Take your PR person to lunch.