Female and male models show up on your TV. They talk about how a cosmetic product helps them look better. You are not feeling particularly good about your looks. You end up buying that product.
You read online that Princeton and Stanford produced most billionaires in the last decade. You make a correlation that going to these schools results in great success in life.
A friend advises depressed you to see the glass half full instead of half empty. “He’s happy because he is always trying to see the brighter side”, you think. You look online for self-help books and find that people transformed their life and became immensely happy using some X,Y or Z books. “One of these books/techniques has to be a solution to my unhappiness”, you think.
Unfortunately, you are a fool if you regularly find yourself thinking like above. Well, maybe “fool” is a bit harsh. But just because majority of people tend to commit similar kind of mistakes regularly, we shouldn’t lower the bar for foolish thinking. But I digress.
So what is the problem with above patterns of thinking?
Primarily, swimmer’s body illusion. A fallacy (a faulty mental model) that creates a strong positive correlation between a person’s great achievements with a particular behavior. A swimmer’s body is so good because she trains extensively using fancy swimming exercises. So swimming is the best exercise for me to get a great body. We tend to avoid flipping the cause and effect upside down i.e. she’s a good swimmer because her physique was good in the first place.
Models don’t advertise products because it’s good for them. They are chosen to advertise because their skin, hair or whatever was beautiful in the first place. Similarly, Ivy league universities are already filtering for brilliant students. Stanford millionaires aren’t millionaires because they went to Stanford. It may have helped of course, but they would have done well for themselves anyway. Your friend or the person who wrote that motivational self-help book isn’t necessarily seeing the glass half full because they found some mental hack or started believing in The Secret. Instead, they were born to be happier than you. Sometimes, you are just dealt a shittier hand than others (by genetics and childhood environment).
Another cognitive error that accelerates our fall into this faulty correlation trap is survivorship bias. Culture guides our attention towards success stories. Do some X or Y activity and some awesome thing Z will happen to you. But what about failures? Where are the folks who did X and Y both but didn’t get Z? Did those failures show up in media stories about Princeton and Stanford? Did they write self-help books explaining their failure after failure after trying X and Y? That’s why advice in autobiographies from famous people should be taken with a dose of skepticism. There are millions who made all kinds of “right moves” that these celebrities share but still went to their graves silently without tasting any “success”. If only there was a publishing house that solely focused on autobiographies of failed musicians, failed startups and failed athletes.
So next time someone (including your brain) tries to force you to create heavily flawed correlations like above, think about these cognitive errors. Ask yourself, is there a way to falsify these correlations? For instance, talk to people who gave 1 star reviews on Amazon to a self-help classic. Ask them what was it that they felt lacking in the book and how it didn’t work for them. More importantly, avoid immediately gravitating towards 5 star reviews. Your desperate, dopamine hungry brain would love to do that.