This post is by Fernando Blanco (pictured below) who recently wrote a paper entitled, Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.
In fact, the researchers set up the experiment so that the light came on randomly, regardless of whether the button was pressed. Still, the many (yet fortuitous) coincidences between your actions and the light onset created a powerful belief that the light was under your control. This is an instance of a cognitive bias called “the causal illusion”, which consists of believing that one event is capable of causing another, when they are actually unrelated. Crucially, this is not a psychological disorder; it is just the way our cognitive system works.
In a recent paper, I have reviewed some of the consequences of developing causal illusions. This cognitive bias can clearly entail negative consequences. For instance, it has been proposed to underlie many irrational beliefs such as pseudomedicine usage. If people keep using ineffective treatments, but their health eventually improves (for reasons different from the treatment), the illusion would create a strong, but mistaken, belief that the treatment works, which can be dangerous. Other experiments link the causal illusion to additional negative outcomes, such as paranormal (superstitious) belief and pathological gambling.
On the other hand, the causal illusion could be associated with positive outcomes too. In Alloy and Abramson’s (1979) original study, mildly depressed people were less likely to develop the illusion (i.e., the so-called “depressive realism” effect), which suggests that this cognitive bias somehow contributes to maintain a healthy mood and a positive view on life. In addition, developing a causal illusion could promote an active approach to many problems: if you believe that you can control important events in your life, and that the solutions to your problems depend on you, then you will likely be persistent, keep trying solutions, and eventually succeed. On the contrary, perceiving your life as uncontrollable leads to a passive stance and generally does not help.
Finally, I review in the paper some of the recent advances in our attempts to acquire control over the causal illusion (to prevent/reduce it when it is deleterious, to reinforce it when it is beneficial). For example, in an educational context, we have been able to prevent the illusion in adolescents, so that they become less likely to fall prey of pseudomedicine usage. Likewise, other researchers have shown how to magnify the illusion in depressed people, with the aim of making them feel more comfortable about uncontrollable events in their lives.