Illusory correlation: what is this bias, and how does it lead us to errors

Do you know the phenomenon of illusory correlation? This is a very particular response tendency, and at the same time, an error that we make in our processing of information, which leads us to establish relationships between two variables which either do not have a relationship as strong, or directly unrelated.

This cognitive bias largely explains the origin of stereotypes. But how? In this article, we explain what illusory correlation is, how it works, why it appears, what it has to do with stereotypes and, in addition, we introduce a concept that is closely related to it and that may be of interest to you. : mental heuristics.

    Illusory correlation: a cognitive bias

    We all have cognitive biases, some kind of psychological effect. Cognitive biases are patterns of response that are consistently maintained in any situation; their function is that of adjustment and adaptation, although they are characterized by leading us to errors (but not always), because they distract us from “normal” treatment, mental, rational or logical.

    In other words, these biases create distortions or inaccurate judgments, and they can also cause us to interpret reality in an illogical way. One of these biases is the so-called “illusory correlation”, studied primarily by social psychology (in fact, we can frame it within this field of study).

    That is to say?

    Originally, the term illusory correlation was coined by Chapman and Chapman (1967). As for its definition, it is this tendency to be based only on confirmatory cases of our ideas or hypotheses, While ignoring unconfirmative cases.

    Through illusory correlations, we sought (and even “created”) associations or correlations between different variables that confirm our beliefs, and we ended up perceiving the relationship between two or more variables as stronger than in reality, she is. Sometimes even that relationship doesn’t really exist.

    This cognitive bias has social application in stereotypes, which these are exaggerated perceptions based on the few details we have of certain people who share certain characteristics. In a way, stereotypes are a mechanism of mental economy, which makes it possible to “simplify reality” and to save cognitive resources, which logically leads to errors.

    So, in this sense, through the illusory correlation we overestimate infrequent behaviors in minority groups (For example, thinking that all the gypsies are stealing because only one of them stole from us). Typically, we apply the illusory correlation (often unconsciously) to negative behaviors. Later, we’ll dig a little deeper into the relationship between stereotypes and illusory correlation.

      Mental heuristics

      To understand the concept of illusory correlation, it is first necessary to know the concept of mental heuristics. Mental heuristics can be seen as “mental shortcuts” to our thinking.

      Generically, we could say that these are mental rules that we use, unconsciously and automatically, to turn a complex problem into a simpler problem. Heuristics help us simplify things, react faster and find effective solutions.

      Relationship with the availability heuristic

      In 1973, Tversky and Kahneman talked about illusory correlation as one of the possible mistakes we can make by applying a specific heuristic, called heuristic availability.

      The availability heuristic, on the other hand, is a kind of ‘mental shortcut’ that we use to evaluate something, and that makes us trust the information we have the most mentally, which allows us to optimize our effort. mental work, preventing us from spending unnecessary time in the process.

      So when we use the availability heuristic, we access the most recent or most easily accessible mental material in our mind (In other words, we have more material “on hand”), and we rely on that material to pass judgment or create an opinion on a topic.

      According to social psychologist and professor Scott Plous (1993), “the more accessible an event, the more frequent and probable it will appear”. In addition, Plous also specifies that the more alive the information, the more convincing it will be and the better memory we will have of it. On another side, the more it becomes a little obvious to us, the more it will seem causal to us (In other words, more likely to think that “this” causes a phenomenon).

      How does illusory correlation work?

      This way, when we apply the availability heuristic, we can make different mistakes (cognitive biases). One of them is that of the illusory correlation, which it is a question of using only (or in priority) the information which we have the most.

      In this case, it is the correlation or association between different stimuli or variables (like the aforementioned example “gypsies” and “criminals”), which is more available in our minds, which makes us remember a lot. more intense this association.

      This results in the above, and consists in overestimating the frequency of appearance of this association. So, we believe that this association occurs much more frequently than it actually occurs.

      Relationship with stereotypes

      We have seen that there is a relationship between stereotypes and illusory correlation, but … what exactly is this relationship?

      According to several cognitive psychology studies, the illusory correlation is in fact one of the explanatory mechanisms involved in the origin of stereotypes. In other words, in a way, the illusory correlation would give rise to stereotypes.

      How do stereotypes work through this mechanism (or, as a product of it)? According to Mullen and Johnson (1990) and current research, people overestimate the correlation between two variables that are generally distinctive and different from each other (eg being gypsy, lower class, homosexual, etc.); this leads us to develop negative stereotypes towards certain social groups (Like those mentioned).

        Why do we apply an illusory correlation?

        As we have seen, on the one hand, the function of heuristics is to simplify our task when solving a problem or analyzing a situation. However, sometimes as a result of these errors arise, as would the case of illusory correlation.

        But why do we make this mistake or this cognitive bias? Cognitive biases often act unconsciously and automatically, or because we have biased information processing (For even deeper reasons), or because our mind wants to save mental resources; this second case would explain the origin of stereotypes.

        For people (or at least for our minds) it is much easier (which is neither correct, nor fair, nor logical) to think that “all people in the collective or social category” X “are. , to think that “Pepe is like that, Joan is like that, Paula is like that …”.

        Thus, it would be a mechanism of saving resources, even if logically other factors are also involved: racism, social heritage, false beliefs, individual personality type, etc.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Ariely, D. (2008). Predictable Irrational: The Hidden Forces Shaping Our Decisions New York, New York: HarperCollins.
        • Mullen, B. and Johnson, C. (1990), Illusory Correlations and Distinctiveness-Based Stereotypes: A Metaanalytic Integration. British Journal of Social Psychology 29, 11-28.
        • Plous, S. (1993). Psychology of judgment and decision making. McGraw-Hill, New York.
        • Triglia, A. (sf). “Heuristics”: the mental shortcuts of human thought. Psychology and the mind.
        • Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: heuristic to judge frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.

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