Whether it is supermarkets or traffic, there are two possible explanations for why you feel the world is against you, explains Tom Stafford.
Sometimes I feel like the whole world is against me. The other lanes of traffic always move faster than mine. The same goes for the supermarket queues. While I’m at it, why does it always rain on those occasions I don’t carry an umbrella, and why do wasps always want to eat my sandwiches at a picnic and not other people’s?
It feels like there are only two reasonable explanations. Either the universe itself has a vendetta against me, or some kind of psychological bias is creating a powerful – but mistaken – impression that I get more bad luck than I should. I know this second option sounds crazy, but let’s just explore this for a moment before we get back to the universe-victim theory.
My impressions of victimisation are based on judgements of probability. Either I am making a judgement of causality (forgetting an umbrella makes it rain) or a judgement of association (wasps prefer the taste of my sandwiches to other people’s sandwiches). Fortunately, psychologists know a lot about how we form impressions of causality and association, and it isn’t all good news.
Our ability to think about causes and associations is fundamentally important, and always has been for our evolutionary ancestors – we needed to know if a particular berry makes us sick, or if a particular cloud pattern predicts bad weather. So it isn’t surprising that we automatically make judgements of this kind. We don’t have to mentally count events, tally correlations and systematically discount alternative explanations. We have strong intuitions about what things go together, intuitions that just spring to mind, often after very little experience. This is good for making decisions in a world where you often don’t have enough time to think before you act, but with the side-effect that these intuitions contain some predictable errors.
One such error is what’s called “illusory correlation”, a phenomenon whereby two things that are individually salient seem to be associated when they are not. In a classic experiment volunteers were asked to look through psychiatrists’ fabricated case reports of patients who had responded to the Rorschach ink blot test. Some of the case reports noted that the patients were homosexual, and some noted that they saw things such as women’s clothes, or buttocks in the ink blots. The case reports had been prepared so that there was no reliable association between the patient notes and the ink blot responses, but experiment participants – whether trained or untrained in psychiatry – reported strong (but incorrect) associations between some ink blot signs and patient homosexuality.
One explanation is that things that are relatively uncommon, such as homosexuality in this case, and the ink blot responses which contain mention of women’s clothes, are more vivid (because of their rarity). This, and an effect of existing stereotypes, creates a mistaken impression that the two things are associated when they are not. This is a side effect of an intuitive mental machinery for reasoning about the world. Most of the time it is quick and delivers reliable answers – but it seems to be susceptible to error when dealing with rare but vivid events, particularly where preconceived biases operate. Associating bad traffic behaviour with ethnic minority drivers, or cyclists, is another case where people report correlations that just aren’t there. Both the minority (either an ethnic minority, or the cyclists) and bad behaviour stand out. Our quick-but-dirty inferential machinery leaps to the conclusion that the events are commonly associated, when they aren’t.
So here we have a mechanism which might explain my queuing woes. The other lanes or queues moving faster is one salient event, and my intuition wrongly associates it with the most salient thing in my environment – me. What, after all, is more important to my world than me. Which brings me back to the universe-victim theory. When my lane is moving along I’m focusing on where I’m going, ignoring the traffic I’m overtaking. When my lane is stuck I’m thinking about me and my hard luck, looking at the other lane. No wonder the association between me and being overtaken sticks in memory more.
This distorting influence of memory on our judgements lies behind a good chunk of my feelings of victimisation. In some situations there is a real bias. You really do spend more time being overtaken in traffic than you do overtaking, for example, because the overtaking happens faster. And the smoke really does tend follow you around the campfire, because wherever you sit creates a warm up-draught that the smoke fills. But on top of all of these is a mind that over-exaggerates our own importance, giving each of us the false impression that we are more important in how events work out than we really are.