How Your Brain Sabotages Relationships
Author: Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC, Alexa Ashworth – MFTC
Assumptions and Bias
Where do you put most of your mental energy throughout the day? Is it playing out scenarios in your head that have not yet happened or re-playing conversations you wish went better than they had gone?
As humans, we tend to become fixated on how others perceive us. We spend exorbitant amounts of time and energy planning what we are going to say to someone before we’re even with them. Mentally playing out different interaction scenarios prior to the actual conversation contributes to misunderstandings, overreactions, and defensiveness.
Our judgments and predictions can cause underlying emotional fuel that the person standing in front of us is unaware of. We’ve fired up our emotional system by imagining a person’s response. How many times have you played out in your mind how an argument is going to go before you have it?
These assumptions become our perceived reality that we take into a conversation. We have therefore predetermined an outcome not based on fact-checking with the person in front of us but based on the assumptions we made in the hypothetical argument we had in our mind. Those judgments and predictions prevent us from being in the moment with the person we are talking to.
Good relationships are built on the foundation of listening and understanding another’s perspective before reacting or giving advice. It’s important to know how to separate the conversation in our head from the conversation that is actually happening in real-time.
How our Brain Simplifies Information
Think of how much information our brains take in every second of every day of our lives! How does it process so much information? How does it eliminate all the unnecessary information from the environment around us? Without a filtration system, we would be paralyzed by millions of bits of information coming through our sensory system every moment we are awake.
The brain takes incoming information and looks for similarities in our memory/experience banks to make comparisons and categorize information. Our brains search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s perception. This process impacts how we gather, interpret, and recall information. These mental shortcuts can lead to mistakes.
Cognitive biases are an example of mental shortcuts. It is your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. Biases often work as rules of thumb that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed. There are a multitude of biases we are susceptible to, one of which is confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias leads us to look for evidence that confirms what we already think. Most humans avoid evidence that contradicts their opinion. Our thoughts are largely based on our personal beliefs and we often assume that because we think it, it must be true.
Our brain’s goal is to quickly find evidence of this truth by comparing our thought to our past experiences. When a thought aligns with experience, we deem it to be true. The error in this bias is that the “confirmation” was based on OUR OWN file cabinet which is not necessarily a neutral source of information!
We tend to ignore or filter out evidence that isn’t congruent with our belief system. It is work for the brain to adopt a new mindset in unfamiliar surroundings or when experiencing new circumstances. The default setting is to stick to the familiar. In unfamiliar circumstances, our defenses go up and our emotional responses can become larger than logic.
Confirmation bias can wreak havoc in romantic partnerships. For example, you waited all day for a coworker to get the information you needed to finish the project you have a hard deadline on. After sending multiple requests throughout the week, you still don’t have what you need. You head home at the end of the day feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and irritated. Your emotions are on overdrive and adding to the frustration, you suspect that the ‘honey-do’ list you left on the counter was ignored.
You enter the house already worked up having predetermined the outcome of your evening. You had the argument in your head the entire way home. As you walk in the door you laser focus on that list that hasn’t left the exact spot you left it! Your breathing gets heavy. Your heart is pumping. You feel the headache coming on. You yell into the house any number of accusations about being ignored, nobody helping you, you have to do everything….
We can all probably fill in the ending of this story. We are now focused on every little thing that your partner DOESN’T do. We suddenly forget all the things they do to help you keep things on track in the house, in your parent’s house, with the kid’s schedules, with the random neighbor they notice needs help with moving.
At that moment, all we see are those things that CONFIRM our belief that no one helps us. If left unresolved, this argument becomes a cycle of nagging, defensiveness, feeling unsupported, and under-appreciated.
So what can we do about this natural human tendency? If this is just something my brain does how can I take back control of my thoughts? Let’s further dive into a few questions we can ask ourselves to take responsibility for our part and keep us in check.
Questions to ask yourself to untwist confirmation bias
- What is the evidence that this thought is true?
- How do I react when my viewpoint is challenged?
- What influences my own actions?
- What about this story makes me believe it?
- Do I feel challenged or reinforced by this story?
- Have I considered I may be wrong? What would this mean?
- Do I tend to reinforce what I already think is true?
Asking these questions helps us stay out of what scientists call the false-consensus effect. In this particular cognitive bias, we believe our way of thinking is the majority opinion of everyone else around us. This bias allows us to feel “normal” and maintain a positive perspective of ourselves in relation to other people.
When we overestimate how much others agree with our own beliefs and values, it can lead us to think incorrectly of others and add to the fabricated thoughts we’ve talked about. Staying present to truly listen to other’s perspectives without imposing our assumptions helps us slow down and see what is actually happening for another person, outside of our own personal belief system.
Regulating our System before Acting on a Thought:
It is easy to become trapped in our cognitive biases, so much so, that we ignore our body’s physical signals when we process information that differs from our own. The question most frequently asked by clients is “How do I self-regulate, so I can say or do the right thing??” It always starts with being able to regulate our emotional responses.
We have to modify our behavior to get the desired results we are looking for instead of our desires driving our actions or reactions.
Focusing on building emotional steadfastness, will help us build clarity around our thoughts, so we can deliver clear messages to others. Self-regulation allows us to bounce back from failure and stay calm under pressure. To regulate our internal system; we have to pay attention on purpose. This comes from a mindful-based stress reduction approach by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn quotes that mindfulness is, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
The next area of importance is cognitive reframing or changing your thought patterns. The only way we can change an emotional response is to reinterpret a situation. One way you can start to practice this is to invite more positive emotions into a daily stressful experience.
For example, if you’re waiting on results from an exam to come back instead of thinking “I failed, I am going to have to re-take the exam” you may say “My teacher is really busy”. Your choice of behavior is always in your control.
I support anyone and everyone moving forward after reading this to stay clear about other people’s intentions. By knowing others’ intentions, we can act more intentionally without later wishing we could have done something differently. Cognitive reframing is one strategy to help with our biases and an area that can be further explored in therapy so you can stay consistent with your deepest, core values.
I have only mentioned a few biases I tend to work through the most with others. In addition to confirmation bias and false-consensus bias, there are many others that impact our ability to relate in healthy ways to those around us. If you found this information valuable, I encourage you to continue personal research on brain biases. There is no better time than now for self-development, exploration of thought, and improving social connections.