What is Association Bias?

What is Association Bias? And why you shouldn’t marvel at your own existence

Association Biases skew our thinking in misleading or distorting ways as we connect different words, events, types of humans, etc. and make our future decisions based on past stimuli and response even though they might be unrelated. A famous example of this is Pavlov’s Dog.

Some examples of Association Bias

Kevin has presented his division’s results to the company’s board on three occasions. Each time, things have gone perfectly. And, each time, he has worn his green polka-dot boxer shorts. It’s official, he thinks: these are my lucky underpants.

The girl in the jewellery store was so stunning that Kevin couldn’t help buying the $10,000 engagement ring she showed him. Ten thousand bucks was way over his budget (especially for a second marriage), but for some reason he associated the ring with her and imagined his future wife would be just as dazzling.

Each year, Kevin goes to the doctor for a check-up. Generally, he is told that, for a man of 44, he is still in pretty good shape. Only twice has he left the practice with worrying news. Once the problem was his appendix, which was promptly removed. The other time it was a swollen prostate, which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a simple inflammation rather than cancer. Of course, on both occasions, Kevin was beside himself with worry when leaving the clinic – and coincidentally, both days were extremely hot. Since then, he has always felt uncomfortable on very warm days. If the temperature starts to heat up around one of his check-ups, he cancels straight away.

Our brain is a connection machine. This is quite practical: if we eat an unknown fruit and feel sick afterward, we avoid it in future, labelling the plant poisonous or at least unpalatable. This is how knowledge comes to be. However, this method also creates false knowledge.

Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was the first to conduct research into this phenomenon. His original goal was to measure salivation in dogs. He used a bell to call the dogs to eat, but soon the ringing sound alone was enough to make the dogs salivate. The animals’ brains linked two functionally unrelated things – the ringing of a bell and the production of saliva.

Pavlov’s method works equally well with humans. Advertising creates a link between products and emotions. For this reason, you will never see Coke alongside a frowning face or a wrinkly body. Coke people are young, beautiful and oh so fun, and they appear in clusters not seen in the real world.

False connections are the work of the association bias, which also influences the quality of our decisions.

For example, we often condemn bearers of bad news, since we automatically associate them with the message’s content (otherwise known as shoot-the-messenger syndrome).

Sometimes, CEOs and investors (unconsciously) steer clear of these harbingers, meaning the only news that reaches the upper echelons is positive, thus creating a distorted view of the real situation. If you lead a group of people, and don’t want to fall prey to false connections, direct your staff to tell you only the bad news – and fast. With this, you overcompensate for the shoot-the-messenger syndrome and, believe me, you will still hear enough positive news.

In the days before email and telemarketing, travelling salesmen went door to door peddling their wares. One day, a particular salesman, George Foster, stood at a front door. The house turned out to be vacant, and unbeknownst to him, a tiny leak had been filling it with gas for weeks. The bell was also damaged, so when he pressed it, it created a spark and the house exploded. Poor George ended up in hospital, but fortunately he was soon back on his feet. Unfortunately, his fear of ringing doorbells had become so strong that for many years he couldn’t go back to his job. He knew how unlikely a repeat of the incident was, but for all he tried, he just couldn’t manage to reverse the (false) emotional connection.

In Conclusion

The take-home message from all this is phrased most aptly by Mark Twain: ‘We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.’

Next:
Beginner’s Luck – BE WARY WHEN THINGS GET OFF TO A GREAT START

Similar Biases:
Contagion Bias – WOULD YOU WEAR HITLER’S SWEATER?
False Causality – WHY YOU SHOULDN’T BELIEVE IN THE STORK
Beginner’s Luck – BE WARY WHEN THINGS GET OFF TO A GREAT START
Availability Bias – WHY WE PREFER A WRONG MAP TO NO MAP AT ALL
Affect Heuristic – WHY YOU ARE A SLAVE TO YOUR EMOTIONS

Previous:
Self-Selection Bias – DO NOT MARVEL AT YOUR EXISTENCE

The above article is from the book The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand cognitive biases. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!