Correlation Does Not Equal Causation..

Curt Jewett

February 5, 2014

During my senior year of cross country, my team and I became superstitious in how we executed things before our races. We would eat the same food, Gatorade, and even wear the same warm-ups. We also had to have our premeet gummy bears on the way to the meet. By following our superstitions we were undefeated in the regular season. Then came championship season… Our first step in the championship season was the league championships. My team and I followed our patterns exactly and raced incredibly. I won the race resetting my course record and lead my team to an almost perfect score victory (a perfect score in cross country is 15 points). We celebrated our victory and started to prepare for our next level, districts. Again, we followed everything exactly as we always had. I again won the meet resetting my course record leading my team to beat the second place team by almost 40 points. We rejoiced for a day and started training for states. On our way to states everything was going as planned until we got to the hotel and our third runner forgot his race socks. We gave him a pair of socks the next morning at the course and continued to follow our patterns. With everyone knowing our almost perfect pattern had been broken, they were a little on edge. As I refocused them and told them we were the best team out there and it was ours to lose, they completely forgot about our broken pattern. After finishing the race, I counted the places my teammates were coming in and knew automatically we had won. When the final scores came in we had beaten the next team by almost 50 points. We had achieved my school’s first team state championship and a perfect season. Needless to say there was much rejoicing. My team was a great example of illusory correlation because we realized that correlation does not equal causation. Just because we were winning didn’t mean that it was because we repeated the same premeet rituals for every meet. What it means is that we worked hard and stayed focused on what we wanted, a state championship. Illusory correlation happens because when things start to happen, many people link relationships with what happened to what they did when the relationship really didn’t exist to begin with. That is what my team and I did and linked it to our incredible success even though our habits and success and nothing to do with each other. While my team still thinks karma was on our side for once, and continues to believe that it was our perfect patterns that enabled us to win, I know that it was just great training and illusory correlation.

3 thoughts on “Correlation Does Not Equal Causation..

  1. Daniel E Fisher

    This was a very interesting story as I played a lot of sports in high school including cross country. Superstitions in sports are always very interesting because of the belief that athletes have in them. I feel like your teams superstitious activities helped to instill a belief that you win your meets and actually may have aided you even though it was just an illusory correlation. The fact that your teammates felt uneasy because of the sock incidents makes me believe it could have affected their performance, but from what I read you seemed to have a very skilled team of runners and such a small event would not really affect them. Although there is no real correlation between the superstitions and winning I believe it can have an affect on the belief of being able to win which could affect performance. In some of the sports I played I would wear some strange wrist band or wear two different colored socks because I thought it may distract opponents and also help me play better when. It may have distracted my opponents briefly but it certainly did not help me play better. I think most athletes have had some sort of superstition at some point and I found yours very interesting.

  2. Katherine S Arazawa

    I can definitely relate to this! I use to play doubles tennis and my partner and I would be very superstitious about considerably insignificant things, like wearing mismatching socks. Though we did have an undefeated season, we realized that the illusion that wearing different socks makes us better tennis players was a bit silly. However, as we discussed in class with the correlation between ice cream sales and crime rates, there may be a third factor considered in the grand scheme of things that better explains the increases of both around the same time, such as weather. In our case, I think the comfort and reliability of a routine gave us more confidence to play our best, which is important to have in tennis in order to execute shots and take safe risks.

  3. Taylor Cameron

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I can relate to this as I am an athlete as well. The sport that i am involved in requires a significant amount of mental strength and will power to succeed. Because my sport is so mentally demanding, I am used to people creating regimes for themselves to follow before a race. For example, some people I know eat the exact same meal prior to every competition. Some other people on my team will wear a “lucky” wrist band or follow the same warm-up patterns exactly. All of these people associate these things with winning and believe that if they follow the same patterns, it will ultimately lead to their success. After reading your post and learning about illusory correlation in class, I have realized that these people are creating a false relationship in their heads . Just as you mentioned, they must think correlation equals causation. If they knew that wearing a lucky wristband to compete does not cause them to win a race, they would understand illusory correlation and most likely stop depending on it every time. Even I can be guilty of illusory correlation at times, but now I am more aware and have come to the realization that doing something routinely does not cause me to win.

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