To Link or Not to Link

As our blog says, we will occasionally write about things that catch our fancy. This post, about something called the illusory correlation, falls squarely in that category.

Simply put, the illusory correlation is a mistaken belief; a perception that there is a link between two variables when no such link exists.

Here are a few examples:

  • You have a spat with your sister, which is highly unusual, as you and she have a harmonious relationship. That day, you’re wearing one of your favorite tops -- it hits you in all the right places, the neckline is flattering, and the color is great on you. But now it reminds you of the unpleasantness with your sister, and you avoid wearing it.

  • At work, you have been dealing with a difficult and unreasonable client who tells you he grew up in Wisconsin. Along the way, you begin working with a new client; when he mentions he’s from Wisconsin, you anticipate that he too will be a challenge.

  • You visit your favorite bar on a Friday night and have a particularly good time--all of the regulars are there, the band is playing music from your favorite decade, and the manager is giving out free pizza. So now when you visit, you try to a grab the same bar stool where you sat that night.

The illusory correlation is an example of a “heuristic”—a mental shortcut that we use to help us deal with cognitive overload. It’s like putting our brain on autopilot, which may be easier than thinking through every new new situation, but can cause us to erroneously link events or facts that have no actual correlation.

Even though it can be difficult, it’s good to slow down our thinking and not make faulty links, so that the decisions we make are are rational (and we can get back to liking people from Wisconsin).

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