There are various ways our minds operate in order to make sense of the world. Based on our experiences, we all have what are called cognitive biases, or methods of belief/thought that don’t entirely line up with reality.
What are cognitive biases?
Cognitive biases are the result of our brains trying to remember things, make sense of information and make decisions quickly.
We all fall into cognitive biases because of the way we process information, but not being aware of when this is occurring can leave us seeing the world through a subjective lens. When we view things based on our biases rather than objectively, we begin to lose touch with reality, a truth that can significantly (and negatively) impact relationships.
There are many examples of cognitive biases, but two, in particular, can hurt romantic relationships: The Zeigarnik effect and confirmation bias.
What is the Zeigarnik effect?
The Zeigarnik effect is a cognitive bias in which people remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. This was discovered in the 1920s when psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters in a café were able to remember orders and keep tabs on unpaid meals, but once the orders were filled and paid for, the waiters were unable to recall detailed information.
Those prone to this cognitive bias might feel as though others never follow through on their word — this would make sense if all they remembered were unfulfilled tasks, and failed to recall the tasks that actually reached completion.
What is confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias is when an individual wants something to be true so intensely that they end up believing it to be true. Wishful thinking and false optimism can both lead to confirmation bias, where one ends up hopefully wishing themselves into a false reality.
This cognitive bias can also cause one to simply stop looking for information that proves them wrong. In other words, they only seek information or examples which confirm their belief and ignore or reject anything that might say otherwise. This can be incredibly dangerous and cause one to live in a place of false reality.
The negative effects of cognitive biases
It doesn’t take a professional to identify the ways cognitive biases can get in the way of a happy, healthy relationship.
Examples of the Zeigarnik effect
The Zeigarnik effect is particularly dangerous as it can lead to nit-picking and a focus on the negative. If you don’t practice remembering both the tasks completed and those left unfinished, you’ll begin to remember only those left undone — it might be a home improvement project your husband started, but never finished; perhaps it’s the laundry your wife never folded; maybe it was a conversation that never got resolved.
When you focus only on those unfinished tasks, you’ll quickly resent your partner and lose sight of all the good things he/she did see to completion: the conversations that found a peaceful resolve, the projects that were finished and the errands they did for you.
Examples of confirmation bias
The same is true for a tendency towards confirmation bias — if you only look for those things which prove the point you want to be true, you’ll lose sight of who your significant other is as a person. If you believe they are lazy and you do all the work around the house, you’ll only start to look for instances that prove this belief.
If you believe they are cheating, you’ll again only look for that which proves this belief to be true; or you’ll convince yourself through irrational thought processes that it must be true. This can make you feel crazy and hurt when it might not even be based in reality.
The dangers of these biases can completely up-end and overturn any healthy relationship; the second you begin living in a falsified reality, the more strain you’ll feel on your relationship.
Couples therapy exercises to overcome cognitive biases
To overcome these biases and live from a place of reality, couples can practice certain techniques and communication skills.
To fully understand your partner, it’s important to allow them to share their perspective and what they are feeling. The listener would then summarize back and if the speaker feels it was accurate, the listener can ask follow-up questions. The partners then switch roles. This allows both parties to express themselves without interruption, come to a mutual understanding and work on a resolution together.
Because cognitive biases originate in our minds, we have a responsibility to keep ourselves in check. At times, we get so caught up in our heads that we struggle to see things as they truly are. We can monitor ourselves by asking questions like, “Where is the evidence that says this is true of my partner? What is the evidence against my view?” “Is this true 100% of the time?” These simple questions challenge our rigid biases and force us to look at all the evidence against the reality we’ve constructed.
Therapists can challenge our thinking and help us see how limited our perspective can be and how biased our opinions can become. Relationships can be very difficult to manage, but small adjustments in thinking can make huge positive changes. If you’re interested in working with a couples therapist, contact The Light Program by calling 610-644-6464 or visiting our website anytime.