Psychology Dictionary of Arguments

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Haslam I 238
Illusory correlation/McGarty: McGarty et al. (1993)(1) asked whether the illusory correlation effect was more than a byproduct of passive information processing but might instead reflect an active process of trying to make sense of the stimuli. The approach was built on the ideas of Fiedler (>Illusory correlation/Fiedler; Fiedler (1991)(2)) and Smith (>Illusory correlation/Smith; Smith (1991(3)).
McGarty: Question: [are there] ways of interpreting the information presented to participants such that the so-called illusory correlation was actually not a distortion of reality but a fair response to the information presented to participants. (Cf. >Experiment/Gifford/Hamilton).
Thesis: when presented with two groups about which nothing was known prior to the experiment, participants would presume that there must be some difference between those groups and that they would be motivated to discover what that difference was. That is, in the absence of prior information that there was no difference between the groups, we expected the participants to search for a meaningful way to see the groups as in some way different. >Social World/McGarty, >Social World/Bruner, >Social Word/James.
Haslam I 239
Fiedler/Smith: if perceivers entertained the hypothesis that Group A is more positive than negative, then they have ten pieces of evidence that support this hypothesis (i.e., 18 – 8) but only five pieces of
Haslam I 240
evidence (i.e., 9 – 4) that support the alternative hypothesis that Group B is more positive than negative. (Cf. Fiedler (1991)(2) and Smith (1991)(3); >Illusory correlation/Fiedler, >Illusory correlation/Smith).
McGartyVsFiedler/McGartyVsSmith: Thesis (McGarty and Turner(1992)(1): rather than simply encoding (or losing) this information, perceivers go beyond the information given in order to refine and sharpen the contrast between the two groups.
Test: if people were expecting that the groups they were viewing were different, then their task was to search for plausible ways to differentiate between the groups. Intriguingly, if this were the case then we should expect to find differentiation when there were expectations even if there was no stimulus information at all. We tested this idea simply by telling participants (a) that there were twice as many statements about Group A as about Group B and (b) that there were twice as many positive statements as negative ones.
Result: When they responded by indicating how they expected group members to behave, there was evidence of significant levels of illusory correlation (such that Group B was represented more negatively than Group A) in five of six tests.
[In a second study] We reasoned that if the illusory correlation effect was produced by reinforcing initial expectations that there should be differences between the two groups, then we should be able to eliminate the effect by reducing the motivation to detect such differences. To examine this idea, we replicated Hamilton and Gifford’s first study (>Experiment/Gifford/Hamilton), but told the participants that the large group (A) was composed of right-handed people and the small group (B) was composed of left-handed people. As predicted, participants’ subsequent responses revealed no evidence of perceived difference between the two groups (i.e., no evidence of illusory correlation) – presumably because they were not looking for differences.



1. McGarty, C., Haslam, S.A., Turner, J.C. and Oakes, P.J. (1993) ‘Illusory correlation as accentuation of actual intercategory difference: Evidence for the effect with minimal stimulus information’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 23: 391–410.
2. Fiedler, K. (1991) ‘The tricky nature of skewed frequency tables: An information loss account of distinctiveness-based illusory correlations’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60: 24–36.
3. Smith, E.R. (1991) ‘Illusory correlation in a simulated exemplar-based memory’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 27: 107–23.


Craig McGarty, „Stereotype Formation. Revisiting Hamilton and Gifford’s illusory correlation studies“, in: Joanne R. Smith and S. Alexander Haslam (eds.) 2017. Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic studies. London: Sage Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
McGarty, Craig
Haslam I
S. Alexander Haslam
Joanne R. Smith
Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2017


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