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How People Identify Trends and Coincidences

Imagine an especially great week at work.

Expectations are exceeded. Things get done. Everyone’s happy!

  • Maybe this is a trend. It could be a sign of genuine improvement. Things are getting better.
  • Maybe it’s a coincidence. Circumstances were just right. It was luck.

Most people would hesitate to call something like that a trend. It’s just one week after all.

But what happens instead if we’re talking about an especially bad week at work? People are much more likely to identify it as a negative trend that will continue.

Little things can “add up”

Sometimes very important changes start off gradually. Just think about skills, health and fitness, relationship quality, or even the economy. Everyone knows that many small events can eventually “add up” to a real trend.

…but not always.

Most people know not to read too much into every little thing that happens.

Not every gain suggests a trend toward improvement, not every loss suggests that things are getting worse. Some events are exceptions to the rule, or seem pretty much random.

The bias toward identifying negative trends

New research shows that people are biased toward identifying negative events as part of a trend.

For example, if you tell people about:

  • A person on a diet who lost 5 pounds over the last month.
  • A student who received ‘A’s on their past 5 weekly exams.
  • A sports team that won their last 3 games.

Most would hesitate to identify these as trends. There might not have been any real changes in health, intelligence, or athletic ability.

If instead, you tell people about:

  • A person on a diet who gained 5 pounds over the last month.
  • A student who received ‘D’s on their past 5 weekly exams.
  • A sports team that lost their last 3 games.

People are much more likely to identify these as trends.

Health, intelligence, or athletic ability must actually be worse.

The researchers were quite thorough (there were 10 studies reported in just this one paper). They had people make judgments while looking at graphs of economic trends, and public health data. They had people gamble real money to see if they would pay more attention to “bad luck” than to similar “good luck.”

The bias was always there. Doesn’t seem to matter if it’s you or someone else, something is added or subtracted, whether it was intentional or unintentional.

Negative events look like trends.

How to counteract the bias

Knowing that the bias exists can help.When you see something negative that looks like a trend, just take a minute to second-guess your perception. Is it really a trend?

The underlying reason is probably the most interesting part:

Positive things seem more “fragile.”

It’s easy to ruin something that’s good. It’s much harder to improve something that’s bad. Because of this, positive trends seem less likely. Negative trends seem more likely. But just because the world might seem that way, doesn’t mean that it actually is.