Illusory Correlation in Children: Cognitive and Motivational Biases in Group Impression Formation

Open Access
Author:
Johnston, Kristen E.
Graduate Program:
Psychology
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
March 13, 2000
Committee Members:
  • Janis Jacobs, Committee Chair
  • Kelly Madole, Committee Chair
  • Janet Swim, Committee Member
  • Jeffrey Glenn Parker, Committee Member
  • Susan Mc Hale, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • illusory correlation
  • social judgment
  • judgment biases
  • stereotypes
  • minorities
Abstract:
Despite the ubiquity and sometimes devastating consequences of stereotyping, we know little about the origins and development of these processes. The current research examined one way in which false stereotypes about minority groups may be developed, which is called illusory correlation. Research with adults has shown that when people are told about behaviors associated with majority and minority social groups where no relationship between social group and behavior exists, people overestimate the number of infrequent (usually negative) behaviors associated with the minority group. Thus, they form an illusory correlation between group membership and behaviors. This effect appears to be due to the enhanced salience of infrequently-occurring information, which is remembered better and therefore estimated to occur more frequently than less salient information. Furthermore, the minority group is evaluated relatively more negatively or positively than the majority group based on the perceived correlation between group membership and behaviors. When participants are members of one of the groups, people further exaggerate the illusory correlation such that their own group is more strongly associated with positive characteristics. The current research examined whether illusory correlation occurs in second- and fifth-grade children, and whether there are developmental changes in illusory correlation formation. Study 1 investigated illusory correlation formation in the absence of self-involvement in the target groups using a minimal groups paradigm. Children were presented with pictorially represented behaviors of a majority and minority group. The majority group consisted of 12 target children, and the minority group consisted of 6 target children. Participants completed attributions of each behavior to a group, a frequency estimation task in which they indicated the number of members of each group who performed the infrequent class of behaviors, and evaluations of the two groups. Children were assigned to either a Negative Behavior-Infrequent condition, in which negative behaviors were less frequent than positive behaviors, or a Positive-Infrequent condition, in which positive behaviors were less frequent. If infrequent behaviors associated with the minority group become more salient, children should overestimate the frequency with which the behaviors occur in the minority group. Thus, children should form an illusory correlation between the minority group and infrequent behaviors. Results showed that children overestimated the proportion of infrequent behaviors in the minority group, regardless of whether the infrequent behaviors were negative or positive. Children in the Positive-Infrequent condition also evaluated the minority group more positively than the majority group, consistent with their estimations of a larger proportion of positive behaviors in the minority group. Children in the Negative-Infrequent condition did not evaluate the groups differently, despite the fact that they estimated more negative behaviors in the minority group than the majority group. However, children's illusory correlations predicted differences in evaluations of the majority and minority groups for the Negative-Infrequent and Positive-Infrequent conditions, indicating that group evaluations were based to some extent on the illusory correlations children formed. There were few age differences. Thus, Study 1 suggests that children do show an information processing bias that leads to illusory correlations between a minority group and infrequent behaviors. Study 2 investigated the relative influence of self-involvement in the minority or majority group and information processing biases using a minimal groups paradigm. Children were told that they were members of either a majority or minority group, and their group perceptions were measured as in Study 1. Results indicated that children overestimated the proportion of negative behaviors in the minority group, and this trend was the same for children assigned to the majority group and minority group. On the group evaluations, however, children rated their own group more positively than the other group. Illusory correlations also predicted differences in evaluations of the majority and minority groups, indicating that perceiving an association between the minority group and negative behaviors moderated the relative evaluations of the groups. Study 3 explored these relative influences using real social stimulus groups of girls and boys. Results were the same as in Study 2, with one exception. Fifth-graders in the majority group did not evaluate the groups differently, whereas second-graders in the majority group, and second- and fifth-graders in the minority group evaluated the ingroup more favorably than the outgroup. These results suggest that children are indeed susceptible to illusory correlations, and that there are few consistent age effects. Furthermore, ingroup favoritism motivations are not sufficient to prevent minority group members from perceiving an illusory correlation between their own group and negative behaviors, although minority group children did evaluate the ingroup more favorably. Again, however, differences in evaluations of the majority and minority groups were predicted by children's illusory correlations. These findings are discussed in terms of their implications for stereotype formation, minority children's group perceptions, and strategies for counteracting illusory correlation effects.