In 1996, Redelmeier and Tversky assessed 18 arthritis patients over a period of 15 months. Almost all patients believed that their condition was related to the weather, when in fact, no correlation existed.
An illusory correlation is the perception of connections and links between two variables, even when none exist. The term was coined by Chapman and Chapman in 1967, to explain the tendency of people to establish relationships based on unusual and insufficient information. This concept was put forth and used by the Chapmans to refute the practice of using Wheeler signs for homosexuality in conjugation with the Rorschach inkblot tests.
It is the tendency of the brain to assume relationships when the events are unusual, or when there is insufficient information available about the variables. It is the primary reason behind the formation of misconceptions, prejudices, bias, superstitions, and stereotypes. These faulty assumptions are then sustained by the brain by finding relevant supportive examples in daily life, while actively ignoring all the contradictory examples.
Theories on Illusory Correlations
The general theory is based on the premise that illusory correlations are based on the availability of information. It refers to the ease with which a particular idea, event, situation, or a connection is recalled by the mind. It also encompasses the vividity of the occurrence of that event. The combined effect leads to forming correlations between variables based on how easily and vividly the connection comes to mind, irrespective of the frequency of its occurrence.
This theory is based on the conversion of objective observations into subjective judgments. This conversion takes place due to the mixing of observations with pre-existing memories or judgments. When these observations are recalled, due to their mixing, conservatism bias (refers to the generation of a conservative outcome) is created, which leads to a state of overconfidence. This can be explained with an event such as judging the weight of a certain quantity of vegetables based on their appearance. A guess or an assumption is made about the weight, based on previous experiences of perceiving a particular quantity as having a particular weight. The assimilation of this new data and the recall of previous data leads to a psychological mixing between the two data sets, which results in the individual making a conservative guess of the actual weight. It is said to be conservative as the estimate made is somewhere between two extreme values (neither too high nor too low). This discrepancy between the actual weight and the assumed weight, due to being inferred based on insufficient data, is an example of illusory correlations.
Working Memory Capacity
Working memory refers to the system that holds multiple pieces of transitory information, and manipulates it, in the mind. Eder, Fiedler, and Hamm-Eder (2011) were able to prove that people with a higher working memory capacity had a more positive outlook as compared to those with a lower capacity. The working memory capacity refers to the capacity of the brain to hold various different thoughts and the ability to process them at the same time. They also found that increased memory load led to an increase in the frequency with which illusory correlations occurred. Since an increased memory load provides the brain with a greater scope to form correlations between various subjects, a random non-existent correlation could be formed and justified based on this. Thus, it can be concluded that people with a positive outlook will find positive correlations around them and the ones with a negative outlook will find negative correlations. Also, the increased memory load of each of these individuals, whether positive or negative, will lead to an increase in the type of correlations that they form due to the brain's access to a variety of diverse connection possibilities.
Attention Theory of Learning
This concept claims that features of a majority group are learned faster than those of a minority group, i.e. if certain characteristics are mentioned about a large group of males, along with some characteristics of a small group of females, the male group characteristics will be learned more easily and quickly. Also, the speed of learning is enhanced when the two groups are being differentiated, and these stereotypical features are learned in pairs. For example, when carrying out a differentiation between bats and frogs, the key differences will be quickly learned, and better remembered due to their occurrence in pairs. Since the brain is hardwired to learn in pairs and to seek out the differences between different groups, the brain ends up forming correlations and connections even when none exist.
Learning Effects on Illusory Correlations
People aware of the concept of illusory correlations show a marked decrease in forming such correlations. Since they are aware of the concept, they tend to actively rationalize events and scenarios so as to not form an illusory correlation that could lead to misconceptions. For example, a rational person would not believe in most superstitions as they lack logic.
According to the findings of Johnson and Jacobs (2003), correlations are formed by people from an early age, but those formed at an early age are weaker compared to those formed later in life. In other words, correlations formed by children are weaker than those formed by adults. The term weaker implies that those correlations are easily modifiable and are not as rigid as the stronger correlations formed in adults.
This theory claims that chances of correlations being formed are higher when the variables are separated into two distinct groups, thereby causing people to find differences between them. Whereas, the chances of a correlation being formed are low when the variables are grouped into similar categories with a minor difference. For example, it is easier to find differences and form correlations between a group of Indians and Americans, as compared to the comparison between two consecutive batches of students in a school. In other words, the chances of an illusory correlation being formed between dissimilar groups is more than that between similar groups.
Concepts Related to Illusory Correlations
Based on Distinctiveness
When two distinct groups with a comparative behavior are presented, the correlation is made between the majority behavior and the majority group. For example, in a set of boys and girls, with boys being more in number, the given comparative feature is that of sports prowess. The feature only states that one set has a greater sports prowess than the other, and does not refer to which set it actually describes. In such a situation, an illusory correlation is made such that the greater sports prowess (majority behavior) is attributed to the group of boys (majority group).
Illusory correlations amplify and reinforce phobias, as the brain retains the experience of related negative events more easily and powerfully than that of related positive events. This causes the individual to attempt to avoid that particular scenario in the future. For example, if a person suffering from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) has a negative experience linked to spiders (negative event occurs after a spider sighting), the phobia is reinforced and is more pronounced.
One-shot Illusory Correlations
These refer to correlations generated by the occurrence of a single event. They involve the correlation of an unusual and unfamiliar group to be linked to unusual behavior. Common behavior and familiar groups are overlooked to only retain information about unfamiliar groups with unusual behavior. For example, the possibility of retention of the fact "Daniel, a Mormon, owns a pet sloth" is higher than that of "Tom, a Christian, owns a pet kitten". Here, the Mormons are an unfamiliar group and the unusual behavior is that of owning a pet sloth, whereas in comparison to this, a Christian who owns a pet kitten is a familiar group with a normal/usual behavior.
If an event has a severe consequence, the cause is assumed to be enormous as well. For example, a computer crashes and causes the entire computer network to collapse. The individuals are offered two possibilities that could be the cause of the crash of that computer - a malicious computer virus or a malfunctioning fan. An instant correlation is made between the crash of the computer and the computer virus, even though it is equally possible for the problem to have occurred due to a malfunctioning fan.
Illusory Correlations at Play
♦ People's tendency to form illusory correlations is used in the marketing of products. A very common example is that of advertising strategies employed to sell products. These strategies include the portrayal of situations where people who are happy and/or successful, are using a particular product. This leads to a correlation being formed between the use of that product and a happy and successful life, though this relation lacks logic. In spite of subconsciously knowing that the two entities are unrelated to each other, people are prompted to go and buy the product being advertised.
♦ The tendency of our brains to form correlations is used by the media too. When trying to produce a specific reaction in the community against a particular entity, the entity is portrayed alongside things/ideas having a negative connotation. To evoke a positive response about an entity, it is shown accompanied by things with a positive connotation. This is an attempt to form the desired opinion about that entity. This occurs due to a correlation being formed between the entity and the accompaniment. This can also be used to victimize certain communities by spreading false information in relation to them.
♦ Illusory correlations have a role to play in the creation and spread of superstitions. The chances of occurrence of a negative event in relation to some ritual or activity, lead a person to develop a superstition around it, which is reinforced when a similar event happens again. Even urban legends and myths propagate in the same way.
♦ When viewing a magic act, despite being subconsciously aware of the fact that magic is nothing more than sleight of hand and illusory tricks, one chooses to accept that the magician's act may well in fact be magic. This conscious belief in magic stems from an insufficient knowledge about the process and logic underlying the trick.
♦ Some psychologists use their patients' preconceived illusory correlations as a tool towards modifying their behavior. The patients are allowed to develop certain correlations and these are then used to reinforce better behavior or to heal psychological trauma.
Common Examples of Illusory Correlations
❖ The stereotype that Asians are better at math and science is an example of a correlation between a particular group of people and their ability/skill.
❖ The superstition of never crossing paths with a black cat stems from a correlation between a black cat and bad luck, even when there is no logical connection between the two.
❖ A child scores well in an exam. Realizing that he had used an ink pen for writing the papers, he believes that the ink pen is lucky for him. This again, is an illusory correlation formed between scoring well and using an ink pen.
❖ A person believes that rural people are kind, hence when he meets kind people, he assumes that they come from rural areas. This is an example of a bias formed against urban people and a correlation between rural people and kindness, which may not hold true.
❖ A person bitten by a dog, assumes that all dogs are aggressive and develops a phobia towards them. This is due to incomplete knowledge about dog behavior.
❖ An elderly person finds it difficult to use her new cell phone, and assumes that all technology is difficult to use. This, as you see, stems from less knowledge and a preconceived notion or biased assumption about the difficulty involved in using all technology.
❖ A person catches a large number of fish while fishing at a particular spot in a lake, and then returns to that place every time he goes fishing. There may not necessarily be a relation between that particular location and the abundance of fish, and even if there is, it may not hold true at all times.
❖ A woman falls down while thinking of something bad about someone, and infers that she fell due to her action of thinking ill of others. Though an illusory correlation, it can be used to discourage thinking ill, and induce thinking good about others.
❖ An individual often thinks that the grass is always greener on the other side, which is due to lack of complete knowledge of the situation there, and the tendency to think of the 'other side' as having something more or better than what one has.
❖ The linking of violent behavior in adolescents to the depiction of violence in video games is another example of correlations. Considering the influence that the exposure to violent games has on kids and teenagers, their violent behavior can be linked to these video games. However, this may be an observation of a small group, the data could be only statistical, and there could be many other reasons for the violent behavior in adolescents. Thus, it turns out to be a correlation that's somewhat illusory.
Illusory correlations are the result of our brain's effort to find connections where none exist. They are mere logical errors that can cause misconceptions and lead to stereotypes. However, rational thinking can help rectify them and thus curb tendencies such as racial stereotyping, bias, superstitions, forming opinions based on insufficient knowledge, and living with preconceived notions that lack a logical base.