Confirmation Bias in Couples

Confirmation Bias in Couples

Confirmation bias is a cognitive distortion that causes us to selectively search for evidence in support of what we already believe to be true. For example, if you believe in ghosts and go to a haunted house then every creak in the floor, movement of air or unexplained noise will serve as validation that the house is haunted. If you don’t believe in ghosts then the house is just old and drafty. Confirmation bias is not based on objective facts; it’s based on selective facts that reaffirm our beliefs. As a purely subjective occurrence, confirmation bias creates self-fulfilling prophecies that traps us in a web of our own assumptions.

As the confirming process advances through our adult life we become more and more convinced that our beliefs are correct. At a certain point we lock them in and our beliefs become our concrete reality. This creates a lack of curiosity about opposing views that limits alternative perspectives and confirms that what we believe to be true, in fact, is true. Confirmation bias is subsequently responsible for political divides and endless debates on topics such as climate change, gun control, birth control, and differing interpretations of scientific studies as each side stubbornly and insistently adhere to their own point of view. The divide in beliefs, fueled by confirmation bias, quickly becomes the archenemy of relationships. The insidiousness of this loop causes us to harm ourselves with our own thoughts and feelings more than anyone else can harm us with theirs.

Maya is a good example of how confirmation bias plays out in relationships. Maya was often rejected by her parents when she was young and she consequently reacts strongly when she suspects someone in her life is rejecting her. Her suspicions are usually unfounded but her hypersensitivity to rejection causes her to perceive rejection even when it doesn’t exist. Maya’s partner is not a rejecting person but when they are in an argument, his tone indicates to her otherwise. She feels put down or dismissed by her partner’s lack of compassion, which she uses as confirmation of rejection. As Maya continues to seek out facts to confirm her belief that she is being rejected her cognitive distortion becomes her reality. This type of selective objectivity causes Maya to miss a lot of relevant information. Despite his protests, Maya sees her partner as a rejecting, insensitive, offensive person when he has that particular tone.

As competing realities clash in relationships the question of who is right and who is wrong ensues. Maya and her partner spend countless hours debating that exact point; “that’s not what I meant, but that’s what you said, I did not say it, yes you did, but not like that, you don’t even know how you come across,” etc., etc., etc. Sometimes it becomes so ridiculous that Maya can’t even believe the absurdity of the argument. But the argument continues nonetheless in an attempt to cancel out each other’s confirmation biases.

So, what is Maya to do when the pervasiveness of confirmation bias overshadows her common sense? A good first step is for her to get in touch with her own subjectivity, which requires a certain amount of maturity and insight into her cognitive processing. We all have confirmation biases; it’s a natural part of the human condition. To counter confirmation bias Maya will have to develop a questioning mind that is open to other interpretations rather than the one she locked in during childhood. It’s a tricky proposition since she selectively scans for information that supports her rejection hypothesis. Maya may try asking herself, “If I’m feeling rejected is it because my partner appears disinterested in what I’m doing or could there be another reason?” If she asks, rather than indulging her assumptions, she may see a different explanation. Maybe he’s tired or stressed out and it has nothing to do with her at all. It’s her willingness to entertain alternate explanations that will help her break through the limitations of confirmation bias and move into a healthier relationship with her partner.

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