Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Attributional Complexity and the Illusory Correlation: A Test of the Inverted-U Hypothesis

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Attributional Complexity and the Illusory Correlation: A Test of the Inverted-U Hypothesis

Article excerpt

People take in an enormous amount of information about their social worlds. For the most part, they do that in a way that facilitates adaptive behavior and allows them to reach their goals (Fiske, 1992; Todd & Gigerenzer, 2007). Nonetheless, social information can be processed and mentally represented in a biased and distorted manner. For example, people are insufficiently attentive to contextual influences on behavior (Gilbert & Malone, 1995), perceive more consistency in others' behavior than actually exists (Kunda & Nisbett, 1986), selectively remember social information that is consistent with their expectations (Hirt, Lynn, Payne, Krackow & McCrea, 1999), and perceive other groups to be more homogenous than their own (Linville, Salovey, & Fischer, 1986).

A common theme in the literature on biases and errors in social cognition is that they are most likely to occur among people who engage in low-intensity processing (e.g., people low in the Need for Cognition --Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996). In other words, it is often found that biases and errors are more in evidence when social perceivers either cannot or will not engage in effortful thinking (Chaiken & Trope, 1999; Devine, 1989a; Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Gilbert, 1989). Less common, but still well represented in the literature, are investigations revealing that some biases can be more pronounced among people who engage in extended, effortful social information processing (Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Newman, Duff, Schnopp-Wyatt, Brock, & Hoffman, 1997; Tetlock & Boettger, 1989). In short, some biases are magnified among people who put minimal effort into social perception and judgment (because they fail to attend to the diagnostic information that would temper a biased conclusion). At other times, though, a great deal of effort is required to construct biased social judgments or distorted mental representations (because gathering enough non-diagnostic information to support a biased conclusion can require time and energy).

Stroessner and Plaks (2001), in their review of a cognitive process potentially underlying the erroneous perceptions of group differences and the creation of stereotypes--i.e., the formation of illusory correlations (or perceptions of an association between two variables that are objectively uncorrelated)--presented yet another possible relationship between bias and the thoroughness of processing. Specifically, they suggested "illusory correlations are most likely to form when perceivers have the motivation and cognitive capacity to process available information with a moderate degree of thoroughness" (p. 250, emphasis added). In other words, the relationship between processing intensity and strength of the illusory correlation was said to resemble an inverted-U, because perceiving an illusory correlation depends on a moderate level of processing that is sufficient to allow for the recognition of differential frequencies of social information, but not so thorough as to allow for the highly accurate processing of that information. Evidence for that hypothesis is limited, however. In the current investigation, we make use of a relevant personality variable--Attributional Complexity (Fletcher, Danilovics, Fernandez, Peterson, & Reeder, 1986)--to generate novel evidence in support of Stroessner and Plaks's (2001) hypothesis.

Distinctiveness-based Illusory Correlations

An illusory correlation is formed when a person perceives an association between two variables (e.g., social group membership and some observed behavior) in the absence of objective evidence to warrant an association between them. Illusory correlations can develop for a variety of reasons, but one often examined and widely replicated factor is the co-occurrence of distinctive stimuli (e.g., Acorn, Hamilton, & Sherman, 1988; Hamilton & Gifford, 1976; Hamilton, Dugan, & Trolier, 1985; Risen, Gilovich, & Dunning, 2007; Sherman et al. …

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