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What is the correct scientific term for the tendency to wrongfully relate arbitrary observations to a significant event, just because they occurred in temporal or spatial proximity?

Most recently I have observed this error in a discussion about an unsolved killing, where a participant was quite sure that her observation of a black van in a far away town was related to the killing, for the single reason that it occurred around the same time.

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This is informally referred to as the illusion of causality:

Illusions of causality occur when people develop the belief that there is a causal connection between two events that are actually unrelated. Such illusions have been proposed to underlie pseudoscience and superstitious thinking, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences in relation to critical life areas, such as health, finances, and wellbeing.

This is a cognitive error in the way humans infer cause and effect.

The example that I'm most familiar with is in medical quackery. Suppose someone is experiencing constipation. They try some advice from friends: Go for a long walk, eat some prunes, massage their stomach, use magnesium supplements. Then they try more questionable solutions: Probiotics, colon hydrotherapy, acupuncture, herbal medicines. At some point during the process, the constipation is relieved, and the patient naturally concludes that whatever treatment immediately preceded this event must have been the cure. They "swear by this treatment" from then on, failing to consider that prior treatments may have needed more time to take effect, that other activities not considered treatments may have affected the results (eg, regular exercise, dietary changes), or simply the mere passage of time.

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    $\begingroup$ How about "causality bias"? The human brain seems to have a strong bias towards discovering causality, because causality can be used to manipulate the environment, which is an evolutionary advantage. $\endgroup$ – user1934212 Nov 14 '20 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I believe that is a synonym (see here the terms are used interchangeably: doi.org/10.1177%2F1747021818755326). $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Nov 14 '20 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ A related term worth mentioning is magical thinking. And another well-known example of the illusion of causality is Skinner's superstitious pigeons. $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Feb 25 at 6:37
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This is called post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: 'after this, therefore because of this') is an informal fallacy that states: "Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X."

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