The Causation Correlation Confusion.

21 Oct

“Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic.” –Aldous Huxley

Causation is when one thing has caused the other outcome to happen. For example, saying that smoking causes lung cancer. Correlation shows a relationship between two events, for example there is a relationship between smoking and alcoholism. A correlation however does not mean that one has caused the other, it just shows a link. It does not mean that smoking causes alcoholism, or alcoholism causes smoking, but there is a link between the two. In research there could be loads of other variables, which can’t always be controlled, and so therefore although there is a correlation, it cannot easily be proven to be causation.

I think that people do generally use correlations to assume causations; I know that I for one do. The human mind likes to make relationships between information and jump to conclusions. Thankfully, in professional Scientific and Psychological research papers, this is not the case! But a huge culprit for assuming causations is the media! I think that by now, we all know that the media do not always tell the truth. They are there to interest people, sell stories and make money. Sadly the truth is not always as interesting as they like, people want facts! They want to know the cause of things, not a link between two things that could mean anything. So the media, especially tabloid papers, like to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to scientific and psychological discoveries. Even politicians have been known to assume causation to put across their beliefs to the public.

Some silly assumptions by the media are:

“Men who have beards are happier than men who do not.” This leads the public into thinking that beards have a magic that CAUSE the male owner of them to be happier. This has to be nonsense! If a man grew a beard, he wouldn’t necessarily be happier overnight! The correlation between the two may have been due to the fact that maybe more self confident and laid back men grew beards.

“People who own red cars are twice as likely to have an accident as people who own blue cars.” This doesn’t mean that red cars are more dangerous. There could be many reasons as to why red cars have more accidents. The owners of red cars may pick the colour red due to them being aggressive. The colour red may also be more popular with bold, ‘I want to stand out’ people, who are more likely to drive aggressively.

sooooo… to avoid all this silly confusion: ALWAYS LOOK AT THE ORIGINAL PAPER!

An interesting website on this correlation vs causation topic is:


One Response to “The Causation Correlation Confusion.”

  1. samlyt October 28, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    This is a good point as it is obviously extremely important in psychology not to imply causation and remember that nothing can ever be proven to cause anything else. Afterall we might see a snooker cue hit a snooker ball and the ball rolls across the table but we cannot assume that it was the cue that caused it even though this seems like the obvious answer as there could be someone under the table with magnets making the ball roll. However because of the way psychological research is presented to the general public it will obviously lead to people believing it causes it when it is only a correlation but sadly this seems unavoidable as the media are not going to change how they report on it and there will always be some people that will believe exactly what they read.

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