Illusory correlation is a false belief that two events are correlated when they’re actually not.
Author Charles Dickens carried a compass at all times to make sure he slept facing north. He believed it boosted his creativity and made his writing better.
Dickens isn’t the only one. Later in the article, I will cover some bizarre practices successful people follow for good luck. But, are celebrities the only ones who have such habits? Not at all. I have my own too.
Back when I was in high school, I had a stationery box. I retained the same one for over a decade, throughout my college too. Guess why?
Was it of top quality? No, it was no different from the rest.
Was I unable to afford another one? No. I could because they’re not expensive after all.
Was it a gift from my father with a history behind it? Again, no. I had purchased it myself from a nearby store.
I kept the stationery box for all those years because I believed it helped me perform better in the exams. Throughout the year, it never came out of the cupboard, but, on the day of the exams, voila, there it was.
So, that was my false assumption. Don’t you have one of your own? I bet you do. Maybe it’s a lucky outfit for special occasions or knocking on the wood to make things go your way or avoiding walking under the ladder to avoid bad luck or making sure you open an umbrella only after you step out of the house. Sure, some of these have logical reasons, but that’s beside the point because you follow the ritual for a different reason.
You have one or more of such beliefs that you make a conscious effort to adhere to. But is that necessary?
“Hey, it has worked for me in the past,” you argue. But, do you have data to back it up? No, you don’t.
You might be of the impression that such practices remain confined to little actions, cause no damage, and have no influence on your decision-making skills. In my case, for example, I’d argue that carrying the same stationery box for my entire schooling life did not worsen my grades.
But, it doesn’t end there. You have the tendency to correlate two unrelated events and make an assumption for larger situations too thereby affecting your thoughts and actions.
Such practices are based on assumptions and this article will cover the reason why we follow them and ways to avoid such illusory correlations.
- What is illusory correlation?
- Examples of illusory correlation:
- How to avoid the illusory correlation
What is illusory correlation?
Illusory correlation is the tendency to associate two unrelated events assuming one causes or has an influence over the other. Such beliefs originate from the few instances where the two events occurred together and you observed a positive/negative outcome after. So, you generalize the concept and convince yourself that it works every single time.
Let’s take the common example of having a lucky outfit for specific events/occasions. You believe it works because you have spotted things working for you when you were wearing it. So, you follow the trend hoping to continue your good luck. You worry you’ll jinx yourself if you wore a different outfit. Therefore, Instead of taking a risk, you stick to your lucky trousers or sneakers.
For example, if you have a designated formal outfit for job interviews, you’ll form an illusory correlation as follows.
When the interview goes well, you credit your outfit. But when things go south, you find a reason to explain what went wrong. “Oh, the interviewer asked irrelevant questions”, “The profile was not the right match for my skills”, “I was not well prepared” etc. In short, you convince yourself to keep your belief intact. Such a mindset originates from one of the bigger cognitive biases, the confirmation bias.
But those are the milder kind of illusory correlations because, from a logical standpoint, you know your outfit has nothing to do with the outcome. Yet, you choose to believe it either way because no harm comes from the outfit.
The flawed logic, however, doesn’t stop with simpler situations and decisions. In the examples below, you’ll notice how you make assumptions without having enough statistics or proof to back it up.
Examples of illusory correlation:
1. Video games are dangerous
Many people believe that kids playing violent video games are more prone to engage in crimes in real life. The belief is so widespread that even politicians have publicly correlated video games to mass murders. For instance, after a 21-year-old boy carried out the 2019 El Paso shooting killing 23 people, President Donald Trump criticized video games.
If you look upon the internet, you’ll find many studies that blame shooting games for real life violence. But, how accurate are those studies? Dr. Aaron Drummond, a senior psychology lecturer went through 28 such studies that contained about 21,000 participants. His analysis showed that violent games had too little an effect on aggression to be meaningful. The 28 studies had methodological flaws and were keen on proving an existing belief than performing research the right way.
When you find a teenager who plays games reacting angrily to a situation, you relate the events together and believe one causes the other. But the truth is, the reason for the kid’s outrage wasn’t the game he played.
2. Bachelors create noise
Residents worry about allowing bachelors into apartments assuming they’ll create noise. Many house owners do not permit bachelors to rent their house for the same reason.
But, do all bachelors create a disturbance? Don’t married couples and families create similar noise during their parties? Have you taken into account the bachelors who disturb nobody?
No one has gathered data from all the residents in your city and examined behavior to find proof for the statement. The thought originates due to a handful of bachelors who party with loud music. With the notion deep in your mind, you generalize the concept and stereotype groups of people.
3. Stereotyping communities
As humans, we learn using the feedback loop right from a young age. When you know nothing about a topic, you experiment and evaluate your results. You then retain what works and avoid what doesn’t.
For example, when you’re in a new city you become friends with people who are warm to you and keep a distance from those who are rude. You follow the same process when choosing a restaurant to visit or outfits to wear. Your brain keeps learning from your real-life experiences.
But, such learning can feed the wrong message into your mind. Based on a few instances, you generalize and correlate all similar events to affect each other. For example:
- People from <add a country name> are rude
- Women in high positions make emotional decisions
- Asians are good at math
4. Superstitions by celebrities
One of the most notable examples of practicing illusory correlation comes from the basketball legend, Michael Jordan. After winning the 1982 National Championship for North Carolina Tar Heels, Jordan believed that the shorts he wore were the lucky charm. He continued wearing them for his entire career, even after he moved to a different team, Chicago Bulls. To cover the old bottoms, he used to wear longer Bulls’ shorts and wear his favorite shorts underneath.
You’ll find all kinds of superstitious practices celebrities follow, some of which seem ridiculous. If you thought your good luck ritual was absurd, think again.
- Sachin Tendulkar, one of the biggest cricketing icons had the habit of wearing the left pad first before stepping into the stadium to bat. (Not sure if he has a sequence to remove them too)
- Emma Roberts has never walked under a ladder in her life(I wonder if she has ever climbed one)
- Jennifer Aniston enters an airplane with her right foot(What happens if she stumbles at the doorstep? Does she buy another ticket)
- Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second(The patience to count each time is more impressive)
- Megan Fox listens to Britney Spears’ songs in an airplane because she believes it is not in her destiny to die listening to Spears’ music(Aircrafts could increase safety standards by asking all passengers to do the same)
- Heidi Klum carries a little bag of her own baby teeth at all times. (No comments)
5. Other real-life examples
Different people have different rituals they attribute for their performance or good luck. Here are some examples
- Sitting at a specific position on the couch when their favorite sports team is playing
- Taking an alternate path to a location to stir things up
- Interpreting the success of a stock based on gut feel parameters
- Buying lottery tickets from a specific store
How to avoid the illusory correlation
1. Consider all possibilities
When you have associated a bizarre behavior with a result, you only remember the cases where things worked as per your belief. To know what the reality is, consider all possibilities.
Take for example wearing the football team jersey of your favorite team during a live match. Your four possibilities are:
- You wore the jersey and your team won
- You wore the jersey, but your team lost
- You did not wear the jersey, and your team won
- You did not wear the jersey, and your team lost
Only case 1 and case 4 match your belief, and you remember them. But, you have to account for the other two scenarios too before you conclude the two events you’re correlating have any connection at all.
a. Confirmation bias:
Confirmation bias in a sentence is the human tendency to only look at the proof that matches our belief and failing to look at cases that don’t. Even if we encounter proof against our belief, we ignore them as exceptions or invalid.
For example, both atheists and believers of God stick to their own beliefs no matter what another person says. Atheists will argue about God turning a blind eye to the suffering in the world. They explain the existence of life using evolution and scientific facts. The believers talk about miracles, the power of prayer, the divine sightings, and the inability of science to explain the reason behind the big bang.
Trying to convince an atheist or a believer to change his opinion is like banging your head against a thick iron door. You will hurt your head while the door will not undergo the slightest of change.
b. Survivorship bias:
Survivorship bias is a tendency to get carried away by a rare success story without considering similar examples of failure. It is the flaw of your brain where you look at the most obvious information and generalize it. You forget to take into account other factors and the failed cases before making a conclusion. The stories of success get all the attention while those of failure slip away in silence.
For example, take the statement, “many of the successful businessmen had dropped out of college.” Doesn’t it seem like the few people who dropped out of college, go on to build a flourishing business? Well, think again. For every college dropout who turned out successful, a big number of dropouts end up with an ordinary life. But those stories will never reach you because the internet loves the story of a survivor.
Have you also considered the other side of the dropout and success correlation? How many successful people did not drop out of college? Did all the dropouts go on to become more successful than the rest? In a study made on about 12,000 successful individuals, more than 94% completed college or attended an elite school. The fraction of successful people who were dropouts is tiny.
c. Representativeness heuristic
The representativeness heuristic is the tendency to make an instant decision based on readily available attributes such as looks, behavior, or known facts. Representativeness bias is the reason why people create stereotypes. Your brain has categorized people and things into different buckets based on various attributes.
You consider a person with curly hair and glasses, a computer programmer. You believe a talkative and funny person will make a great sales executive. You assume a person wearing a suit in a tech park must hold an executive position. Even though no one asks you to make a guess, your mind starts judging automatically.
Your brain never stops working throughout your entire life. It does many amazing things, but also fumbles here and there. So, when you’re brain is making an illusory correlation, it’s trying to identify a pattern without adequate information.
Such flawed logic is part of everyone’s brain because mother nature has wired us that way. Though you cannot stop your brain from trying to make illogical associations, you can clarify to your own self why the logic is mistaken.
Now that you have understood how to counter illusory correlation, you can stop your strange superstitious rituals. But, will you? That’s a different question altogether.
Jonathan Wai Research Scientist, & Heiner Rindermann Professor of Educational and Developmental Psychology. (2019, September 04). The myth of the college dropout. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-the-college-dropout-75760
Kaplan, C. (2020, July 21). EXPERT REACTION: No long-term link between video games and aggressive behavior in youth. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/no-long-term-link-between-video-games-and-aggressive-behaviour-in-youth
2019 El Paso shooting. (2021, January 11). Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_El_Paso_shooting
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.