News Hungry: Harvard Student Blames His Misfortunes on an Illusional Experiment


You have to be sure before you destroy what you already know and substitute it with something new.”                                                                                                                                               -Helena Matute

Back in the 1970s, a Harvard student approached his psychology professor and asked for some unusual help. He explained how he heard his wife say what he was thinking before he said it and then she divorced him. He also talked about layoffs with his coworkers and coincidentally he was laid off two days later. These misfortunes led him to believe that he was in some kind of scientific experiment so he asked his professor to test his hypothesis.

As crazy and desperate as this sounds, it wasn’t due to insanity, but revealed a cognitive bias, known specifically as an illusion of causality. This is the idea of assuming that there is a causal relationship between two events when one event happens after another.Helena Matute, a psychologist professor at Deusto University conducted a study of the effects of causal illusions. The results showed that we are prone toward creating misleading assumptions about cause and effect, so much so that we tend to block new or conflicting information that goes against our original ideas.

Did you know that many medicines and homemade remedies used to cure headaches and colds manipulate the concept of causal illusions? These medicines and remedies plant the idea that it actually cures, but in reality those conditions heal naturally. It’s sort of like the placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs when a person takes an ineffective or fake treatment, but feels better because they were told that the treatment would heal them. Another study showed how one could test the effects of medicine when running a sufficient amount of trials with a placebo and compare it to the trials with those who took the medication. Once you get the results you can then make a more accurate conclusion. This will help you avoid the illusion of causality, but it’s not easy if you strongly believe otherwise.

I came across an amazing article called “Your Brain is Primed to Reach False Conclusions” by the lovely Christie Aschwanden on FiveThirtyEight. It made me realize how we are all susceptible to illusions of causality, because we have biases, whether we acknowledge them or not. It’s easy to believe that “a result happened because I’ve seen it happen before”. It’s hard to believe anything that goes against your experiences and beliefs because, as humans, we have a strong need to feel that we are right or correct. Our natural instinct is to react and believe that our perspective is the balanced one, but try to remain open to new information, even when it contradicts or challenges your deeply held worldviews.

Words by Sammi Tsui

Images via

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