Cognitive Biases and Their Impact on Relationships


There are various ways our mind operates in order to make sense of the world. Cognitive biases are systemic patterns of thinking that are out of the norm. They impact the way we process information, remember things, and make judgements. We all fall into them from time to time, but not being aware of when this is occurring can leave us seeing the world through a more subjective view. We view things based on our biases rather than objectively. Two cognitive biases in particular can impact our relationships: The Zeigarnik Effect and Confirmation Bias.

What Is the Zeigarnik Effect?

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. The completion of a task can lead to it being forgotten and incomplete tasks helped to ensure the waiter remembered their order.

What Is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation Bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Once we have formed an opinion on an issue it can be hard to perceive it in an unbiased manner. Confirmation bias impacts how we gather information, but it also influences how we interpret and recall information. For example, if one believes that left-handed people are more creative, they will only search for artists who are left-handed. They will remember the one person they knew who was left-handed and zone in on a detail of how the person could have been creative.

We have difficulty seeing things rationally especially when emotions are involved. This can be a problem within relationships. After an argument we may view our partner as being unfair. Each time a disagreement occurs we may look for all the evidence that proves the partner is unfair. Over time, this builds and eventually are convinced that the partner is overall an unfair person. We may have ignored all the instances that would have proved otherwise.

How Confirmation Bias and the Zeigarnik Effect Impact Relationships

These two cognitive biases can be disastrous to a relationship. If we are searching only for evidence as to why our partner is unfair and this resulted in an unresolved argument, we will revisit this again and again. This creates a culture of negativity and paints our partner in a very unfavorable light. Fostering a relationship that invites healthy expression of feelings and understanding does wonders. Working with a therapist can teach you communication tools to use in times of arguments and when high emotions are involved.

While the Zeigarnik Effect can be very helpful in many instances, it can be problematic for relationships. When couples argue and issues are left unresolved, they are more likely to recall and relive these moments than if they were hashed out. The frustration and hurt remain available and can play out over and over again in our minds. Arguments that end with compromise, understanding and amends are soon forgotten or at least won’t be reoccurring in our minds. The Zeigarnik Effect also gives some scientific reason as to why break ups can be difficult to get over. Unfinished business with an ex will may cause us to obsess over the past relationship.

Couples Therapy Exercises to Overcome Cognitive Biases

My favorite exercise involves fair and assertive communication, which I simply call the Speaker/Listener Drill. One individual would speak first to share their perspective and what they are feeling regarding the unresolved issue. 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 for both parties to express themselves without interruptions. Once understanding is met and both feel heard, they can then move to compromising for resolution. If this is practiced, issues won’t be left unresolved.

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 head that we struggle to see things as they truly are. We can monitor ourselves by asking questions such as “What 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 bias and force us to look at all the evidence pulling us out of a confirmation biased view.

With the awareness of such cognitive biases, a therapist can challenge our thinking in a more rational sense. There are many other ways to overcome The Zeigarnik Effect and Confirmation Bias in individual or couples’ sessions. Relationships can be very difficult to manage but small adjustments can make huge positive changes. If you’re interested in working with a couples therapist in southeastern Pennsylvania, contact The Light Program at (888) 686-7511. Or, fill out a contact form below.


  1. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.