The Illusory Correlation Effect and Aaron Hicks


Apr 15, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins outfielder Darin Mastroianni (left) celebrates with outfielder Aaron Hicks (right) following the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Target Field. The Twins defeated the Angels 8-2. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The illusory correlation effect is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when two events, characteristics, or concepts become strong associates of one another, leading to a bias toward remembering those two associates as having co-occurred in a new series of exposures.  Basically, two unrelated events become connected in our brains, whether an actual relationship exists or not.  Think two first impressions, but linked together.

Picture Joe Mauer at the plate.  The pitch is delivered and he puts it in play.  Where did the ball go?  Your own vision of that Mauer hit depends a lot on your own biases and prejudices.  If you envision Mauer hitting a slow-roller to the second baseman, you might have a preconceived notion of Mauer as a ground ball machine who rolls over to second on a frequent basis.  If you envision Mauer lining a double into the opposite-field gap, you probably perceive Mauer as a dangerous doubles hitter who comes through for the team on a frequent basis.  The reality is that you have likely created these correlations when they either do not exist, or when they simply do not predict anything of future value.

Aaron Hicks is the player du jour when it comes to discussing Twins baseball.  Should he be sent down?  Should he be moved down in the lineup?  Should he be given as much time as he needs to work through his struggles?  While we cannot answer these questions with accurate, definitive responses, our own biases and prejudices are likely to form our responses and affect our perception.  In reality, the information that we have associated with Hicks may have no bearing on his future performance.

There is no inherent danger in regards to a baseball illusory correlation.  The problem as fans is that an illusory correlation is a lot like a first impression, in that they can wear off very slowly.  In the case of Hicks, the fans have been treated to a poor first impression from Hicks, along with the potential false correlation between Hicks’ current performance and his future performance.  In reality, the small sample size argument appears again because there is no way to correlate the first 10 games of a player’s career to the remainder of their career (assuming the player plays a decent amount of games).

Fans are starting to boo Hicks at home games.  I’ve read “he’s in over his head,” “he’s losing his confidence,” and “he looks lost.”  We aren’t able to get inside of Hicks’ head.  He may look to us like he is pressing or losing confidence, but unless we get a very detailed report of Hicks’ psyche, we can’t really confirm this information.  We are constantly creating associations as humans, and this is a natural occurrence.  However, many of these associations aren’t accurate, but they do explain what we see, especially when we aren’t sure why we see what we see.

To take it a step further, when we create our own associations, we can then use these same biases to explain future changes and events.  If Hicks starts hitting, we might start to see a more confident player on the field, when the reality may be that nothing has changed in Hicks’ level of confidence.    If Hicks starts hitting better, we might start to view him as a better fielder as well.  In fact, when Hicks does start to hit, we will probably come up with a multitude of reasons why, when the reality may simply be that things are evening out for him.

I’m not trying to discredit our ability to accurately perceive baseball players.  Our brains are busy, with lots of important stuff to do.  If we need to make some false correlations to make our ability to watch and absorb baseball a little easier, it is probably worth it so that we can keep learning, breathing, sleeping and all that good stuff.  Our brains look for shortcuts because our brains are taxed at all times.  If my brain can save a few watts of power by telling me that Aaron Hicks is struggling because he “wasn’t ready for the jump to AA,” then it can spend a little extra time trying to remember that important piece of information from earlier today that I can’t quite remember as I type this.

When trying to gauge player performance, we should look at the facts.  Aaron Hicks has a low batting average, he is striking out a lot and he was recently moved down in the batting order.  Anything we correlate to these facts might be illusory.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that Aaron Hicks isn’t losing confidence, but we cannot state that with any sort of realistic confirmation of that theory.

Illusory correlations from fans do little harm.  Booing is probably unpleasant, but no one has ever retired due to booing.  The danger with this effect would come if Aaron Hicks formed his own illusory correlations or if the Twins formed an illusory correlation regarding Hicks.  These correlations could lead the team to lose hope, or worse, Hicks to lose hope.  Fan perceptions lead to discussions and possibly arguments.  A change in perception within the organization or from the player could change a lot more.

If we know that these correlations are not real, but that we cannot avoid them, how does this knowledge really help us?  Awareness is important.  If we are aware of this concept, we can be frustrated when Hicks has a bad at bat, but realize that his future is still bright.  Awareness reminds us that while Hicks may need a few months in AAA, he is still a great prospect who can help the Twins in the near future.  We can control our awareness and use it to shape our perception.  Our brains are capable of living in the moment while still keeping the big picture in mind.  If we find that balance, we will all be much happier as Twins’ fans.

I posted a reaction to Ben Revere’s awesome catch on Monday.  You can read the transcript (and see the catch) here.  Do you feel that we create illusory correlations when watching baseball, or am I being an obnoxious professor who needs to lower taxes?