Illusory Correlation

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Illusory [ih-loo-suh-reecorrelation [kawr-uh-ley-shuhn] is the phenomenon of perceiving a relationship between variables (typically people, events, or behaviors) even when no such relationship exists. A common example of this phenomenon would be when people form false associations between membership in a statistical minority group and rare (typically negative) behaviors as variables that are novel or salient tend to capture the attention. This is one way stereotypes form and endure, which can lead people to expect certain groups and traits to fit together, and then to overestimate the frequency with which these correlations actually occur.

The term ‘Illusory correlation’ was originally coined in 1967 by psychologists Loren Chapman and Jean Chapman to describe people’s tendencies to overestimate relationships between two groups when distinctive and unusual information is presented. The concept was used to question claims about objective knowledge in clinical psychology through the Chapmans’ refutation of many clinicians’ widely used Wheeler signs for homosexuality in Rorschach tests.

A parallel effect occurs when people judge whether two events, such as pain and bad weather, are correlated. They rely heavily on the relatively small number of cases where the two events occur together. People pay relatively little attention to the other kinds of observation (of no pain or good weather). Most explanations for illusory correlation involve psychological heuristics: information processing short-cuts that underlie many human judgments. One of these is ‘availability’ (the ease with which an idea comes to mind), often used to estimate how likely an event is or how often it occurs. This can result in illusory correlation, because some pairings can come easily and vividly to mind even though they are not especially frequent.

Artificial intelligence researcher Martin Hilbert proposes an information processing mechanism that assumes a noisy conversion of objective observations into subjective judgments. The theory defines ‘noise’ as the mixing of these observations during retrieval from memory. According to the model, underlying cognitions or subjective judgments are identical with noise or objective observations that can lead to overconfidence or what is known as conservatism bias—when asked about behavior participants underestimate the majority or larger group and overestimate the minority or smaller group. These results are illusory correlations.

A 2011 study of the effects of working-memory on illusory correlations found that individuals with higher capacity viewed minority group members more positively than individuals with lower working memory capacity. A followup experiment looked into the effects of memory load in working memory on illusory correlations, finding that increased memory load in working memory led to an increase in the prevalence of illusory correlations. The experiment was designed to specifically test working memory and not substantial stimulus memory. This means that the development of illusory correlations was caused by deficiencies in central cognitive resources caused by the load in working memory, not selective recall.

The ‘attention theory of learning’ proposes that features of majority groups are learned first, and then features of minority groups. This results in an attempt to distinguish the minority group from the majority, leading to these differences being learned more quickly. The theory also argues that, instead of forming one stereotype regarding the minority group, two stereotypes, one for the majority and one for the minority, are formed. A study was conducted to investigate whether increased learning would have any effect on illusory correlations. It was found that educating people about how illusory correlation occurs resulted in a decreased incidence of illusory correlations. Children also report illusory correlations, indicating that social stimuli are not necessary for creating them.

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