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Illusory Correlation: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Illusory Correlation?
  • 2:04 More Examples
  • 2:54 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Illusory correlation is the assumption that a relationship exists between two variables that are really not related. Learn more about illusory correlation from examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Illusory Correlation?

Sal is traveling to London, England for the first time. One of the first places that he stops is a souvenir shop. Sal ends up with so many bags that his purchases take up all of the tiny counter space and the cashier has to place some of the bags on the floor. A few minutes after leaving the shop, Sal turns back around having remembered that he left bags on the floor. Upon his return, Sal witnesses the cashier with one of the bags in his hand and concludes that the cashier was trying to steal his purchases.

Later that week, Sal goes to a different shop to buy souvenirs, and the cashier does not enter the discount code for the clearance items, which results in Sal being overcharged. After a conversation with another employee, Sal is refunded his money. Because of these two events, Sal concludes that all of the cashiers in London's shops are thieves who try to take advantage of tourists.

Sal's conclusion about London cashiers is an example of illusory correlation, the perception that a relationship exists between two variables (which could include behaviors, events, items, or people) when in fact there is not a strong relationship between the two. Illusory correlation is created when two separate variables are paired together, which leads to an overestimation of how often they co-occur. It is illusory in that the relationship between the two variables is not real; it is the result of our biased perception of the variables and a lack of information.

Let's look at the example with Sal. Because he had two bad experiences in which he believed that cashiers in London were stealing from him, he wrongly concludes that all London cashiers are thieves. However, Sal may have had good experiences with cashiers. For example, he could have run into one on the street who gave him directions or purchased him a beverage at a pub, but Sal either didn't recognize they were cashiers or didn't remember.

Because his bad experiences are the ones that stick out to Sal the most, he incorrectly concludes that all cashiers in London are thieves. We can see from this example how illusory correlations can cause us to develop stereotypes, especially when it involves a specific group of people (i.e. London cashiers) and a negative behavior (i.e. stealing).

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