Is the Streetlight Effect Clouding Your Decisions?

One night, a police officer noticed a man walking in circles underneath a streetlight, with his eyes fixed intently on the ground.

Confused, the officer asked the man if he was alright. He responded that he had lost his keys and was searching for them.

The officer offered to help this man look for his keys, which he gladly accepted. So the two searched, circling the area for quite some time.

Frustrated, the officer asked, "are you sure this is where you dropped your keys?" "Oh, no," said the man. "I dropped them across the street, but the light is much better here."

This story is a bit silly, but it highlights a peculiar way that our own minds can trick us into doing what is easy, rather than what is right.

The result is a cognitive bias known as the streetlight effect, named after the story.

The streetlight effect can mislead you into doing something you know you can complete, rather than the thing that will help with the main problem you're facing.

For instance, cleaning your home while avoiding an important project for work or school could be a result of the streetlight effect.

Cleaning is important, but in that situation it may be more of a distraction than a helpful behavior. It's looking where the light is, not where your keys are.

There's no catch-all fix for the streetlight effect, but it largely comes down to intention and attention.

When you have an important task or problem to solve, try to start out with a plan, and separate what's part of that plan from what's not.

The more difficult something is, the easier it will feel to switch gears to feel productive, but in the end, the only way past a difficult obstacle is through it.

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