Focusing on "Focus"

Announcer during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, after watching US gymnast Gabby Douglas fall off the balance beam in that event’s final competition: “Her focus is just not on today.”

 Lacking Focus

“Lacking focus” also is a common description when a person seems awash and rudderless in the sea of life, while “being focused” is usually a good thing in that same sea, though one can be so focused on the trees as to lose focus on the forest, which often is not a good thing. 

What is “focus?” Is it a thing that resides inside of us and gives direction to our activities? Or is it a set of skills that we acquire, or don’t acquire, across our lives? The direction-giving view puts focus as the cause of behavior.  Gabby fell off the balance beam because her focus was not guiding her actions as it should have been doing. Much like Jiminy Cricket (the animated insect who serves as Pinocchio’s conscience) guides the actions of boys and girls, keeping them out of harm’s way. For a behavioral psychologist, focus is not so much a cause of behavior as it is a summary description for a set of observable skills learned and practiced over some period of time. To say that a person is focused means simply that their behavior is on task.

To a behaviorist, Gabby’s lack of focus was not the cause of her falling off the balance beam; it was the falling off the balance beam. Focus is action - in this case falling. If we say she fell because of the lack of focus, we are falling into the trap of circular explanation. She fell off the balance beam because she lacked focus. How do we know she lacked focus? Because she fell off the beam. The very thing we are observing is taken as the cause of that same thing.

A cleaner way of addressing the question of focus is to not consider it a cause at all, but just a description of what happened. We then can (dare I say it?) focus on those environmental circumstances that are related to her falling. Was she distracted by something else? Was she tired? Was she ill? Did she break up with her boyfriend ten minutes before the event? Probably none of the above, but something in her immediate present or recent past most likely affected her performance. And that something was not of another world. By examining the circumstances under which the behavior occurred, we come closer to understanding how and explaining why the behavior occurred, as opposed to the vacuous non-explanation of using focus to account for, rather than describe, the behavior.

The lessons from Gabby’s unfortunate misstep are general ones for anyone working with people. People often are labeled as lacking in attention or focus, lazy, careless, bumbling, hostile, or sulky and the like. These traits are too often seen as unchanging features of the person, much as the stars are fixed in the heavens above, making it even more difficult for the person to change. It is not a far leap to these traits being seen as the cause of whatever work problems there are. The alternative is to take a person’s behavior as behavior and not an index of some deeper psychic machine spewing out traits that cause them to not do things as one might like. “Focus” and all the others, good and bad, are patterns of behavior that result from past learning. Some can’t be undone easily because the competing history is too long and strong. Most, however, can be changed as the person’s circumstances change. Behavioral psychology offers the best hope of unlocking the key to such positive behavior change. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.