Streetlight effect

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Not to be confused with Street light interference phenomenon.

The streetlight effect is a type of observational bias where people only look for whatever they are searching by looking where it is easiest.[1][2][3][4] The search itself may be referred to as a drunkard's search.

Taken from an old joke about a drunkard who is searching for something he has lost, the parable is told several ways but typically includes the following details:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is."[2]

David H. Freedman apparently coined the phrase "streetlight effect," but the story and concept were used in the social sciences since at least 1964, by Abraham Kaplan, where he refers to this as "the principle of the drunkard's search" [5] although an earlier version occurs in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1950) Volume 6, p9.[6] and an even earlier version in 1945 US Senate Committee Hearings.[7] An expanded version occurs in the Proceedings of the Forty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Alabama State Bar Association (1922) [8]


Further reading[edit]

  • Iyengar, Shanto (1993). "The Drunkard's Search". Explorations in Political Psychology. Duke Studies in Political Psychology. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1324-3. 
  • Popkin, Samuel L. (1991). "Going beyond the data". The reasoning voter: communication and persuasión in presidential campaigns (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. pp. 92–95. ISBN 978-0-226-67545-9.