Illusory correlations happen when two variables (people, events, or behaviors), are perceived to have a relationship, when in fact, there is no logical reason for them to be correlated.
An illusory correlation can lead to bad decision making and even wrongful accusations! It can also lead us into developing detrimental beliefs and taking harmful actions.
Below are 10 different examples where illusory correlations can occur, so you can get a better understanding of the phenonmenon yourself.
Examples Of Illusory Correlations
- Urban areas and crime rates: People in rural areas often point to ‘crime-ridden’ cities to draw contrast to their wholesome rural hometowns. Unfortunately, this is just an illusion. Cities have more people, so there’s more crime. But per capita, there is actually much more crime in rural areas.
- The gambler’s fallacy: Gamblers who see that a coin has flipped heads six out of six times think that heads is likely to turn up again the next time. This is an illusion. There is still a 50/50 chance that tails will turn up.
- Risk and plane crashes: Many people have fear of flying because it feels like planes are extremely risky forms of transport. However, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.
- A black cat caused your bad luck – A superstitious person sees a black cat on the way to work, then has a terrible day. There is no correlation here, but they might still blame the cat for their bad day!
- Prayer found you the parking spot – Growing up, my aunt would always make me pray for a parking spot when we were driving around the parking lot. When we found a spot, she would always thank Jesus.
Difference from ‘Correlation is not Causation’
Illusory correlation is different to the phrase ‘correlation is not causation’ (or what we might call the false cause fallacy).
If there is a correlation evident, but no causation, then there’s still a correlation. It’s not an illusion – it just doesn’t have a causal link!
On the other hand, illusory correlation assumes that there is a correlation evident even when there isn’t.
While these two concepts have overlaps, they differ because illusory correlation looks at the debunking the ‘correlation’ side of the scenario, while the false cause fallacy looks at the ‘causation’ side of the scenario.
It can be summed up as:
- Illusory correlation fallacy: The correlation is not evident.
- False cause fallacy (correlation is not causation): The correlation is evident, but the cause is falsely attributed.
One time when these two concepts overlap is when there is a perceived correlation that is given false cause. In this case, both the correlation and causation can be called into question.
Common Scenarios when Illusory Correlation Occurs
Next time you see a sporting event on TV, take a pause and observe how each of the players act in moments leading up to gameplay. Before a baseball player comes up to bat, do they tap their shoes on the ground a certain number of times? ‘
Sports are a great way to see illusory correlations at play, as athletes tend to attribute minute things like bouncing the ball a certain number of times to be connected to a desired outcome.
This is because, on the off chance one bounces the ball 4 times and then scores a 3-pointer in basketball, they might begin to believe they will get a 3-pointer only if they bounce the ball 4 times, every time.
2. Children’s Assumptions
In early stages of development, children are at the whims of their parents and guardians to learn about the world. They learn what is good and what is bad initially from those that raise them, before entering adolescence where they will begin to form their own opinions.
While this can be a helpful starting point, the development of illusory correlations through this learning may have negative outcomes. For instance, a child may form the belief that all teachers are good people. Then, when introduced to a teacher, they may automatically trust them.
While this may not lead to harm, it does potentially establish an authority dynamic where the child may assume anything asked of them by the teacher is for good.
3. Dog Breeds
Through media and entertainment, pit bulls have often been framed in a negative light as an aggressive and dangerous dog breed, and have dismissed sharing their soft side as great family pets.
If the news chooses to only share stories of dog attacks happening with a pit bull involved, this may lead to illusory correlation being developed amongst people that if they see a pit bull in person they may be attacked.
Wrongful associations can lead to anxiety, as well as fear of dogs in general, for no real justifiable reason.
4. Race relations
Another, more problematic, scenario where illusory correlations can take place is in situations involving people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds.
For instance, if someone receives poor service at a restaurant by someone who is racially different from them, it may then be assumed that all people who identify with that particular group have a poor work ethic.
This may mean the customer, when faced with the authority to hire a new worker and their job, may overlook candidates of the same background because of this illusory correlation.
The education system is another area where illusory correlations run rampant due to the great deal of pressure students are faced with, as well as the constant grading and examination.
To illustrate, after studying feverishly for a final exam in a difficult university chemistry course, a student is left in dismay as they discover they have failed the test.
Acknowledging that the test was administered on a Tuesday, the student then takes on the belief that any test in the future taken on a Tuesday will mean an automatic failure. This is an example of an illusory correlation.
6. Generational Relationships
Illusory correlations can result in fractured relationships between people of different generations.
Take, for instance, a new teacher in training who attends a movie at his local theatre. While the movie begins to start, a large group of teenagers walk in and sit right behind him and talk throughout the entire movie.
Annoyed, the man then deduces that all teenagers disrupt the peace and avoids any sort of interactions with them in his training to become a teacher, missing out on sharing knowledge with a key demographic.
Here, the illusory correlation has formed a negative opinion in the teacher-in-training’s mind towards teenagers; which will possibly impact his ability to teach impartially and fairly.
In the event that one knocks on wood and an amazing thing happens, they may find themselves knocking on wood for the rest of their lives, having developed an illusory correlation between the two events.
Superstitions are beliefs strongly tied to illusory correlations, simply due to the belief that an action will result in an income, and that the relationship is causal.
Although we often don’t have as much control in the outcome of a particular event as we may think, tapping into and utilizing superstitions is still widely accepted today. Just make sure you don’t walk across the path of any black cats!
8. Survivorship Bias
Survivorship bias occurs when someone sees similarities between survivors and assumes that is why the survivors managed to survive! Often, this leads to illusory correlation.
The typical example is from surviving bombers during WWII. The British airforce looked at the bulletholes in surviving planes and used the bulletholes in these planes to figure out where to reinforce future planes with armored steel.
They assumed that these holes demonstrated where planes were being hit most.
The problem here is that the planes that survived managed to survive because they weren’t hit in the most vulnerable spots. So, looking at where they were hit was futile – there was no direct correlation between these holes and the planes being shot down. In fact, it was a negative correlation that was observed!
9. The Devil’s Music
Music has been around for decades, providing entertainment, comradery, and joy among those who listen.
While the genres vary, the more aggressive rock songs with suggestive and sometimes unsavory language have been intertwined with an illusory correlation with criminal activity.
Dating back to the Columbine in 1999, many in political power took the stance that the unfortunate incident came to fruition due to the assailant’s involvement and frequent listening to Marilyn Manson.
With his angry lyrics, many easily believed in the connection between the two events. This ultimately led to a decline in popularity for Manson, and was most likely a result of an illusory correlation formed in the public’s opinion.
10. Successful College Dropouts
Another area of life where illusory correlations are found is within the world of business, and in particular with entrepreneurship.
The stories we hear about entrepreneurs are often the success stories. We hear about the college dropouts from Harvard that make it big (e.g. with the Microsoft and Facebook founders).
What is missing from these public stories, however, is the stories of the college dropouts that fail to succeed. Although the misses far outweigh the hits, we may incorrectly assume that putting our life savings into a venture may mean it will automatically be successful.
Whether it is conscious or not, humans form illusory correlations in an attempt to understand the world around us.
While oftentimes it is harmless, the development of problematic assumptions may lead to perpetuated stereotypes and biases. In order to intentionally remove yourself from making these assumptions, be realistic and honest about the times a perceived event led to another event.