Have you ever made an assumption about someone based on their appearance or blamed someone else for something bad that happened to you? If so, then you’ve experienced something called a cognitive bias. The little snap decisions our brain makes impact every aspect of our lives, especially our relationships with others.
However, these impacts often harm our relationships, not help them. So, it’s important to understand what cognitive bias is and which biases may be affecting your relationships so you can develop the skills you need to overcome them.
What is a Cognitive Bias?
A cognitive bias is a kind of filter in the human brain. It takes objective parts of our lives and forces us to experience them in subjective ways. In other words, cognitive biases are essentially flaws in our deductive reasoning skills that cause us to see things from an unrealistic perspective.
When we allow cognitive biases to take over, it affects how we perceive the behaviors of those around us and how we think others perceive our behaviors. This leads to a lot of miscommunication based on things that aren’t even true (although they often feel true to us in the moment).
There are over 160 different cognitive biases that we can exhibit throughout our lives. Most of the time, these biases are harmless (although we should still be aware of them). However, there are several cognitive biases that can be damaging to our relationships if we aren’t careful to spot them and rein them in.
1. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret actions and behaviors in ways that confirm our already-held beliefs and conclusions. This can rear its head in many different situations, but here’s one example: Let’s say you develop a crush on a friend who’s very friendly with you. You want to think that they reciprocate those feelings, so you interpret their platonic gestures as romantic ones.
On the one hand, this is all part of the normal love dance that humans do. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this could backfire and cause a rift in what’s otherwise a great friendship.
Confirmation bias can come up in non-romantic situations, too. For instance, if you’ve erroneously concluded that one of your friends has a certain personality trait, you may interpret everything they say through that lens and that might result in friction and tension.
2. Hostile Attribution Bias
Hostile attribution bias is the tendency to inject malignant intent into others’ actions when their behavior is neutral or benign. If you’re always suspicious about people’s gestures, words, and ulterior motives, then you may have a case of hostile attribution bias.
It’s important to rein this one in because it’s quite repulsive. People don’t like when others suspect them of foul intentions, especially when they’re just being themselves around you or doing something nice for you. And if you’re constantly attributing hostile intentions, they’ll get sick of it fast.
3. Empathy Gap
Empathy gap is the tendency to interpret actions and behaviors around you through the lens of your current emotional state, and the inability to understand a different emotional state from your current one. In other words, your emotional state at any given time has a huge effect on your behavior, thoughts, and decision-making processes in that moment.
For example, when you’re drunk on love, it can be near impossible to empathize with your friends who are single, and this can cause a lot of friction if you aren’t careful. Or if you’re miserable with your work life, you may be unable to celebrate with others who are happy in their own careers, and may even grow envious or bitter toward them.
Empathy is important in any healthy relationship, so being able to close this gap is crucial.
4. Negativity Bias
Negativity bias is the tendency to remember negative events more starkly and more frequently than positive events. This isn’t inherently bad since it’s a great way to learn from mistakes and avoid negative experiences again in the future.
But there’s a fine line between “remembering negative events” and “clinging onto negative events.” When negativity bias is left unchecked, it follows you around in the form of emotional baggage and proves to be a burden in most of your relationships.
Negativity bias can also cause you to be more risk-averse and act more reserved. In the case of romance, if you’re always dwelling on the times you got rejected while forgetting all the times you weren’t, you’ll be less and less likely to try again next time. Negativity bias is a huge confidence killer, so it’s best to nip it in the bud when you can.
5. Status Quo Bias
Status quo bias is the tendency to want circumstances to remain the same; any deviation from the norm is seen as undesirable. In other words, people with this bias hate change and will do anything to preserve as much routine and familiarity in their day-to-day life as possible.
Taken to the extreme, status quo bias can cripple you and make you reluctant to leave your comfort zone. Maybe you don’t want to try new foods or new experiences with your friends. Perhaps you just want to stay in at home all the time. Maybe you settle for friends or lovers who are a bad influence over you, yet you cling to them because they’re familiar and all you know. This keeps you from reaching out or making new connections.
6. Ingroup Bias
Ingroup bias is the tendency to show preference and favoritism to members of your “in-group” at the expense of those who are in the “out-group.”
While ingroup bias isn’t necessarily bad, it can be when taken to the extreme. The concept of an in-group implies that there’s a commonality that bonds everyone in the group, and that commonality is usually a lifestyle or way of thinking. Over time, this can encourage an echo chamber environment – and a compulsion to change who you are so you continue to fit in.
This is damaging to you (and everyone in the in-group) because you’ll lose your sense of individuality and succumb to groupthink. And God forbid anyone ever falls out of the in-group because they may end up becoming the target of hostility from the remaining members of the in-group.
Reactance is the tendency to act or think differently than how you’re told to act or think, even if the presented action or thought is in your best interest. In extreme cases, you may have done or thought that particular thing on your own, but as soon as it was verbalized by someone else, you feel compelled to change your course (perhaps out of spite).
You can see how this could burden personal relationships, especially with those who are looking out for you and want the best for you. They make suggestions and you ignore them or do the opposite—and each instance places additional strain on the relationship. If you prioritize personal freedom over relational compromise, you’ll eventually lose those relationships.
Not only that, but reactance can make you susceptible to manipulation. That’s where the whole idea of “reverse psychology” comes out to play. If you predictably do the opposite of what you’re told, it’s surprisingly easy for malevolent people in your life to control you.
Overoptimism is a cognitive bias that causes us to see situations in a much better light than they really are. Although we often think the “glass half full” approach to. life is the key to happiness, that’s not always the case. Instead, it leaves us in a vulnerable, unprotected place.
At a minimum, excessive optimism towards others can leave you devastated when you eventually discover their imperfections. In romantic relationships, this can cause resentment or even distrust. You may think your partner deceived you by not letting you see their flaws, when really it was your own cognitive bias that got in the way.
In more extreme cases, overoptimism can leave you vulnerable to friends or loved ones who may take advantage of you. They may even abuse you while you still see them in a positive light. Unfortunately, this can put you in harm’s way if you aren’t careful.
Reciprocity bias is the term used to describe someone who feels like they must reciprocate everything others do towards them. This cognitive bias doesn’t discriminate between “good” and “bad,” though. In other words, reciprocity bias can push you to reciprocate anything someone else does for you, whether it was kind or rather sinister.
On the positive, this cognitive bias pushes people to return favors (“pay it forward”), pay back those who let us borrow money, and share resources. the impulse to reciprocate actions others have done towards us. Unfortunately, this bias also pushes us to seek revenge or do things just so others can feel the same pain we previously felt. This can severely damage relationships, especially if other biases caused us to falsely believe a loved one intentionally caused us harm.
Most of us know that stereotypes are generalizations we make about people based on a single characteristic. Unfortunately, stereotyping is a cognitive bias that often causes us to make assumptions about people instead of just asking them directly.
When we stereotype friends or romantic partners, they may feel like we don’t genuinely see them as an individual. They may feel unwanted and unloved, or they may become angry. This can cause the breakdown of a relationship, especially if you don’t realize that you are stereotyping the other person.
11. Self-serving Bias
When good things happen in our lives, we often believe it is because of something we did. Inversely, when something bad happens, we often blame others. Unfortunately, both of these are examples of self-serving bias.
Self-serving bias is a cognitive distortion in which people see things in a way that maintains or enhances one’s own self-esteem. Although this can sometimes prevent you from doubting yourself and holding back, it can also negatively impact your decision-making skills.
At its worst, the self-serving bias makes you look like someone who never takes responsibility for your actions. It also can cause you to seem egotistical and self-centered, which is the last thing you want in a relationship.
How to Overcome Cognitive Biases
Cognitive biases are as much a part of our lives as air. While this means you can’t simply pledge to never use them, there are things you can do to overcome these distortions.
First, you must become aware of the cognitive biases you use and catch yourself in the act. This will help you identify what situations activate a cognitive bias so you can look for signs ahead of time.
When you find yourself in a situation where you know your cognitive biases are affecting your decision-making or interactions with others, take a moment to pause. Get curious and ask questions. Doing this often helps you demystify the belief the bias is using, so you can move forward.
Furthermore, try to view every situation from multiple perspectives. You can do this by asking others for their input, or imagining yourself in another person’s shoes. When you do this, you will likely see where a bias was clouding your judgment.
Last, but certainly not least, strive for a growth mindset in everything you do, including your relationships.
Frequently Asked Questions
What causes cognitive bias?
Cognitive bias is most often the result of heuristics, which are mental shortcuts our brain uses to make decisions quickly. They can also be caused by emotional responses based on past events in your life or peer pressure.
How does cogntive bias affect you?
Cognitive bias can impact your decision-making and problem-solving skills. It can also affect your career success and relationships with others, often negatively.
Can you avoid cognitive bias?
Unfortunately, a cognitive bias is often something our brain does subconsciously, meaning it cannot be avoided. That being said, there are things you can do to push through cognitive bias and not let it shape your thinking.
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