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The HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad BiasIllusory Correlation Bias

As a passionate college basketball and NCAA March Madness fan, my season took an unexpected turn when my beloved Michigan State Spartans were eliminated in the second round. Woe is my heart! With Sparty sidelined, and my bracket in shambles like most others after the first weekend, I found myself adrift in the sea of college basketball without a clear team to root for. As I watched the Elite Eight matchups something piqued the interest of the human behavioral scientist in me. Specifically, the target of my attention was Dan Hurley, head coach of University of Connecticut Huskies. A report about him screamed at me, “Bias!” No, not any potential of bias by the referees! It was Coach Hurley's sartorial superstition.


Coach Hurley has been donning the exact same outfit for every game of the tournament that he wore during UConn's title run last season. We're not just talking about a lucky tie or a cherished wristwatch here. No, Coach Hurley goes all in reportedly wearing the same shirt, pants, jacket, socks, shoes, and, most intriguingly, a pair of red dragon underwear. Yes, you read that right, read dragon underwear. In a world where deep analytics and strategy reign supreme, here's a nod to the whimsical, funny, and personal rituals that remind us of quirky human beliefs and behaviors.


You might think, "What's the big deal? It's just a personal superstition." But as someone who studies human behavior and the brain, I know there's something more profound at play. It's not about the superstitions themselves but about how the human brain works. It’s not just about the brain’s ability to learn and perform the amazing skills we see in elite basketball players, but also its ability to find cause and effect among unrelated events.


The idea that UConn's success could somehow be attributed to Coach Hurley's choice of attire, particularly the red dragon underwear, is tickling my fancy as I watch the tournament. A little more seriously, it's a humorous indicator of the brain’s love for connecting dots that might not actually be related, finding patterns that don’t exist. In the rational corners of our minds, we know that basketball games are won on skill, strategy, and a bit of luck, not on the whimsical patterns of a coach's underwear. Yet, this hasn't stopped some, like Coach Hurley, from equating causation with correlation (even with a small sample size).


Coach Hurley's attire has become my tournament intrigue. This story about superstition serves as a light-hearted reminder of how easily we humans fall prey to a cognitive bias called the illusory correlation bias – the tendency to believe in causal connections that aren't really there. As I watch the Final Four, I'll be keeping an eye on Coach Hurley, not just for his coaching prowess or strategic acumen, but for his steadfast commitment to a wardrobe choice that has become an interesting subplot of the 2024 NCAA Tournament. With Coach Hurley and his UConn Huskies as our backdrop, let’s learn more about the Illusory Correlation Bias and how it influences our own perceptions and beliefs about events in our world.


What is Illusory Correlation Bias?

Illusory correlation bias refers to the mental shortcut we take when we mistakenly believe there's a connection between two events, trends, or behaviors when, in fact, no such link exists. It's like assuming that because you found $20 on the day you wore your lucky socks, those socks are somehow magically money magnets. It's the reason behind many a superstition and the occasional leap of “logic” that lead us to believe in connections that are, at best, coincidental.


  • Psychological Perspective: Psychologists see this bias as our brain's way of making sense of the world. It speaks to our innate desire to find causality and patterns in the world around us. In a complex and often unpredictable environment, our minds seek to create order by connecting dots, even when those connections are unfounded. It's a storytelling instinct, crafting narratives that reduce stress inducing uncertainty.


  • Human Behavioral Science Perspective: From this angle, illusory correlation bias is a testament to our social learning. We observe, we infer, and sometimes, we get it wrong. This bias can shape our perceptions of people and situations based on flawed connections. It also can lead to stereotypes or mistaken beliefs, like assuming success hinges on something like lucky underwear.


  • Neuroscience Perspective: Neurologically, our brains are pattern-recognition machines. This bias emerges from the brain's tendency to prioritize efficiency over accuracy, leading us to jump to conclusions based on perceived patterns, even if those patterns are the result of random chance.


Illusory Correlation Bias in Action

  • At the Workplace: Imagine attributing the success of your team's presentations solely to the color of the PowerPoint slides. "Green slides bring good luck," you insist, after two successful pitches that coincidentally used a verdant theme. Ignoring the hours of research and rehearsal, you've fallen for an illusory correlation.


  • At Home: Ever decided that your family dinners are more pleasant when you use the blue plates? If you find yourself believing the dishware color influences the mood at the table, you're experiencing illusory correlation bias, overlooking other factors like the day's events or the meal's quality.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

Now, back to our tale of basketball and mythical undergarments. How do we tackle the chuckle-worthy yet enlightening challenge of illusory correlation bias? With HERO Skills, of course.

  • Humility helps us admit that perhaps our lucky charms or rituals might not be the causative agents we thought they were.


  • Empathy allows us to understand how others might fall for similar biases, creating a shared ground for discussion.


  • Reflection gives us the pause needed to critically assess our beliefs and where they might be leading us astray.


  • Open-mindedness opens the door to alternative explanations, fostering a willingness to see beyond our initial assumptions.


Last Dance

As we wrap up our journey through the world of illusory correlation bias, illustrated so vividly by Coach Hurley's clothing choices and in particular his red dragon underwear, it's clear that our minds are fascinating arenas where logic and superstition often intertwine. This tale, while humorous, sheds light on a broader aspect of human cognition: our propensity to find patterns and connections, even where none exist. It serves as a gentle reminder of our cognitive biases, which, while they can lead to amusing anecdotes, also have the power to shape our perceptions and decisions in significant ways. Could this be how some minds, incorrectly attribute the recent Baltimore bridge collapse, the Boeing plane incidents, and other negative outcomes with DEI Efforts?


Understanding the illusory correlation bias through the lens of Coach Hurley's superstitions doesn't just offer us a chuckle; it invites us to reflect on the countless other unnoticed biases that may influence our daily lives. It underscores the importance of critical thinking and the need to question our assumptions, no matter how deeply ingrained or seemingly harmless they may be. It can help us call into question the various conspiracy theories that often begin with a simple story about events that have maybe correlated but have no causal connection.


Employing our HERO Skills - Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness - in confronting these biases allows us to navigate the complex web of human cognition with greater awareness and compassion. Humility opens our minds to the possibility that we might be wrong; Empathy helps us understand and connect with the perspectives of others; Reflection encourages us to look deeper into our thought processes; and Open-mindedness empowers us to accept new and potentially challenging ideas.


As we move forward, let's take these insights beyond the realm of March Madness and basketball superstitions and apply them to our broader interactions and decision-making processes. Whether in the workplace, at home, or in the myriad interactions that make up our daily lives, these HERO Skills can help us build more meaningful, grounded, and bias-aware relationships with the world around us.


A Challenge to the Reader:

I leave you with a challenge, inspired by the saga of the Coach Hurley’s red dragon underwear and the quest to overcome our cognitive biases. Over the next week, observe your own patterns of thought and behavior. Identify one instance where you might be succumbing to the illusory correlation bias - perhaps a superstition, a ritual, or a belief in a cause-and-effect relationship that, upon closer inspection, with real data just doesn't hold up.


Once you've identified this instance, apply the HERO Skills to critically evaluate and challenge your assumption. Approach this exercise with humor and curiosity, remembering that our biases, while sometimes misleading, are also what make the human experience so rich and varied. Share your findings with someone - a friend, a family member, or a colleague. Discuss what you learned about the influence of biases on your perception and decision-making. By engaging in this reflective practice and encouraging others to do the same, we can all take steps toward a more mindful, bias-aware, and maybe less divided world. May the breath of curiosity and the tale of red dragon underwear light your journey forward.


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