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How Might Online Platforms Influence What We Think Is Important?

Oct 21 2022 • 3 min read

Imagine that you’re browsing the housing market online in search of a new home. Once you’ve selected an approximate location, how might you narrow down your search?

There’s a good chance that you might use the filters typically available on your platform of choice: namely price and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Which at first might seem like a sensible enough approach. After all, you may have certain minimum requirements and such physical features are easy to compare between properties.

The problem with this approach is that many of us end up attaching too much weight to these features in our house-purchasing decisions, while giving too little weight to other things that might be just as (if not more) important.

Psychologists offer two explanations for our tendency to fixate on physical or measurable details. The first relates to a phenomenon known as projection bias. One aspect of this bias is that when thinking about our future wellbeing we tend to overestimate the impact of material factors, like the size of our house. And to underestimate the impact of non-material factors, like the proximity of our family and friends.

The second explanation relates to a concept called WYSIATI, a term coined by Daniel Kahneman, which stands for what you see is all there is. WYSIATI describes our tendency to focus solely on information that is directly in front of us and to overlook information that is not immediately available.

Together, these two phenomena can lead us to discount important information. When searching online for a new home, for example, the information about the physical features of different properties that is placed directly in front of us might have little bearing on our future wellbeing. Whereas information that is not immediately available might matter much more.

Researchers have found, for instance, that a neighbourhood’s air quality, its access to green space, its walkability, and its level of social cohesion – among other things – all generally increase residents’ wellbeing to a much greater extent than we realise at the point of purchase. And can be more significant than the features that we tend to focus on, like an extra room.

But such information is typically missing. For this reason, online platforms often exacerbate our projection bias and tendency to think that what we see is all there is. As our use of these platforms increases, therefore, so too does the need to carefully consider the information that is not directly in front of us.

When deciding between means of transport, for example, we might want to think beyond journey time and cost. And to factor in things like the surrounding scenery, whether the wifi actually works (if we want it to work) and possible stop-off destinations along the way.

For the same reason, when searching for a new job we might want to focus more on a company’s flexible working policy and the nature of our potential future colleagues than the salary being offered.

The easy bit of overcoming projection bias and WYSIATI is recognising that what we see is never all there is. The difficult bit is identifying what exactly we cannot see, and whether it might matter more than the stuff we can see.

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