The psychological concept of illusory causation is well documented empirically and permeates all aspects of life.  It leads one to conclusions and decisions that seem like they are fact-based when, in reality, they are not.

In illusory causation, an individual incorrectly attributes an outcome to something that precedes it (i.e., a false stimulus).   For example, a black cat darts in front of a car and five minutes later the car is involved in a fender bender.

A real-life example:   A physician was preparing to vaccinate a child when the child experienced a seizure.  Had the doctor actually given the shot, the vaccine would have (reasonably) appeared to have caused the seizure.  When an event like this occurs–and a great deal of emotion is involved–it is almost impossible to disabuse a person’s views, say the parent, regardless of the amount of scientific evidence presented to the contrary (i.e., the vaccine does not cause seizures).

After botched calls by the referees in the recent NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, sports-talk radio shows and website forums lit up with conspiracy accusations:  the referees were in cahoots with Las Vegas gamblers or the NCAA organization wanted certain teams to win.

Similarly, whenever the stewards in a horse race do or do not change the order of finish after an inquiry or objection, they are accused of nefarious motives.  After a horse breaks down during a race, some people and groups immediately assume that illicit drugs must be the explanation.

Handicapping horse races is a process that particularly invites illusory causation because of the vast number of independent variables involved in predicting how a race might turn out.  Indeed, the vast array of statistics reported in the Daily Racing Form and other sources is an obstacle to attracting new bettors, who are overwhelmed by trying to figure out what is important and what is not.

A neophyte might go to the racetrack for the first time and place a wager based on a horse’s gray color.  If that horse wins, the likelihood of a spurious association between horse color and horse ability will be strong enough to cause the bettor to wager at least once or twice more on gray horses.

Trip handicappers look for one or more reasons a horse had an excuse for losing in a previous race, such as he had a bad break or was carried wide on the first turn.  While trip handicapping can be a productive endeavor, it can also lead to wrong deductions.   Maybe the horse wins the next time out because of a confluence of variables that have little or nothing to do with getting an improved trip.

The only way to determine causation with a reasonable degree of certainty is through a scientifically conducted experiment in which the test variables are manipulated while all other variables are held constant.  This is virtually impossible to do in handicapping horse races, which is why the endeavor is at once so frustrating yet so challenging.


My hope is that a chestnut colt with white markings on three or four of his legs runs in this year’s Kentucky Derby because that has been a good data-driven handicapping angle for me.

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