Although I regularly rant about the poor quality of undergraduate psychology courses, studying mine off-campus has helped me to learn some valuable skills which I still use today. One of these is critical thinking, or the ability to examine and judge the arguments and claims people make before accepting or rejecting them outright.
Faulty reasoning is extremely common, among people of all backgrounds and education. Politicians are adept at it, although they often use it intentionally.
I’d like to discuss a very common type of logical fallacy: false cause, and how it can lead to the development of stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination.
Children who wear glasses are often labeled as “nerds”, regardless of their academic achievements. Wearing glasses is often associated with superior intelligence but low social skills, and discrimination and bullying ensues.
Where did the association between glasses (a device designed to enhance visual acuity) and intelligence started?
University professors are assumed to be highly intelligent, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have attained professorship. Many of them wear glasses, and many live a fairly solitary lifestyle, making them appear socially awkward at times.
The logical fallacy occurs when we make the causal link between wearing glasses and being intelligent. That they often co-occur amongst university professors isn’t questioned, but does wearing glasses cause high intelligence? Does high intelligence cause the wearing of glasses?
Most people don’t stop to think about another possible explanation: university professors are very often over 50 years old, and visual acuity tends to decline over time. Therefore, it may be their age that leads them to need glasses, not their intelligence.
If this hypothesis is correct, does it make any sense to associate the wearing of glasses with intelligence, especially among young children?
Some readers will probably exclaim that most of the spectacled kids they knew at school were top of their class. This may be an example of another logical fallacy, illusory correlation, or simply the pygmalion effect: children who are labeled as nerds tend to believe the label and act accordingly, strengthening people’s opinions.