Association Fallacy: Connecting the Unconnectable

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Thinking Clearly" by Rolf Dobelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is association bias? Why does association bias occur?

Association fallacy (or association bias) is the brain’s tendency to make connections where none exist. This phenomenon is a defense mechanism: making associations allows you to evaluate risk when making decisions.

Keep reading to learn about association fallacy, why it occurs, and how to overcome it.

Association Fallacy

Association fallacy is where you causally connect two unrelated things. According to Rolf Dobelli, the author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, the association fallacy misrepresents cause and effect by forming false knowledge.

Superstitions form this way, Dobelli explains. For example, say you bring rainboots when camping, and the weather is perfect. The next time you go camping, you leave the rainboots behind and the weather is awful. The next time you bring them, the weather is wonderful again. After a few of these experiences, your brain connects the boots and good weather, even though it’s just a coincidence that the weather improved when you brought the boots.

Association bias is also involved in traumatic experiences, Dobelli adds. Say you step in a hole and break your leg while playing soccer. Your brain makes a connection between soccer and pain, and you may refuse to play soccer again. Because these connections have stronger inciting incidents—breaking a leg is more memorable than bringing boots—they can be very strong even after a single incident, while more innocuous connections must be reinforced over time.

Why It Happens and How to Overcome Unhealthy Connections

Why does association bias occur? Dobelli doesn’t say, but others argue that association bias is a defense mechanism: Making connections helps you form “protective frames.” These are practices or support systems that let you evaluate risk (for example, the risk of it raining when you go camping). Most of the time, these frames are helpful or harmless, like our rainboot example. However, connections made through traumatic experiences are maladaptive and grow stronger over time. For example, your fear of soccer may expand to fear of walking on any grass as you think it’ll put you at risk of more pain.

Though these connections grow stronger over time, you can change them. One method of changing the connections your brain makes is through exposure therapy, where you gradually expose yourself to the object of your negative connection. This replaces the connection between the object and your negative experience with a positive or neutral experience. For example, you might watch a soccer game or walk around on a soccer field. Your brain takes those positive experiences and forms a new connection to soccer which overrides the negative experience and the feeling of risk.

Association Fallacy: Connecting the Unconnectable

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  • A detailed look at the most common logical fallacies that inhibit decision-making
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  • Why you value things for arbitrary reasons

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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