Confirmation Bias in Marriage

Election season has now reached a fervent peak around the country. My weekly runs take me by countless yards with campaign signs stabbed in their soil as though the occupants are laying claim to virgin land. The radio ads cause whiplash, with one party’s claims following the other, blaring rhetoric in an attempt to sway votes at the last minute.

There’s a reason that political campaigns are so heavy-handed and in-your-face. They are up against an enormous hurdle in their attempt to change our minds.

The politicians are trying to overcome our confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is an innate trait that we all possess to varying degrees. It states that we have a tendency to seek out information that corroborates our beliefs. It says that we are rarely neutral researchers in life, rather we form hypotheses and then seek out confirmation that our conclusions are correct.

In other words, we look for proof that our opinions are true and we actively ignore or discredit information that threatens our beliefs.

In the political arena, we gravitate towards legislators that echo our conclusions about civic matters. We support those that tell us that we are right and those that threaten our views are often met with intense disdain.

But confirmation bias doesn’t just exist in the poll booths. It’s everywhere. It’s one of the reasons that scientific papers are peer reviewed. It contributes to teachers not grading their own students’ high stake tests. It influences dating when we gravitate towards those that reflect back our own principles. If we believe we are fat, we see the flesh above the waistline; if we believe we are skinny, we focus on the exposed bone structure. It’s why we respond differently to someone wearing a suit than someone whose underwear is exposed above sagging jeans. Bias is behind the success of optical illusions and Hollywood movies. Bias is everywhere.

We see what we want to see.

Confirmation bias is powerful. Even with relatively mundane matters, it still drives down to our core self. Our egos don’t like to be told they’re wrong. Confirmation bias can lead to elaborate choreography to try to shore up our beliefs and the construction of huge blinders to avoid the recognition of anything that threatens our opinions.

Part of the power of confirmation bias is our inability to recognize it. Countless studies have demonstrated that even when people protest that they are acting without bias, that they still gravitate towards confirming information. It operates below our level of cognition and influences every encounter.

So what does confirmation bias have to do with marriage?

Everything.

Because you have a mental construct of your marriage. Of your spouse. Of your relationship and roles. And whether you are aware of it or not, you seek information that substantiates these conclusions while ignoring data that doesn’t align.

It’s one of the reasons that people (myself included) can be blindsided by divorce or infidelity. We believe that our spouse is trustworthy, and we are biased towards evidence that supports our belief. Because if we allow ourselves to see the other data, it not only threatens our view of our spouse, but also of ourselves. After all, if we were wrong about that, what else might we be wrong about?

It’s a slippery slope that’s scary to tread. So we don’t.

We see what we want to see.

Confirmation bias in marriage can also work the other way. If a spouse has concluded that the marriage is garbage or his or her partner is awful, evidence will be mounted to substantiate the claim. One episode of nagging or stonewalling will be added to the tally, while days or months of good behavior is tacitly ignored as a case is built against the spouse.

We see what we want to see.

Given that confirmation bias is innate and subconscious, can we learn to be nonpartisan in our views of the world? Can we learn to see what is and not only what we believe?

Yes and no.

The biggest weapon against confirmation bias is the knowledge that it exists and the acceptance that you are not immune to its siren’s call. Because when you find yourself defensively proclaiming that you have considered all of the information, it’s a good sign that you haven’t. In fact, the more emotional you are about a situation, the more likely it is that confirmation bias is present. Strive to release the ego that says that you can’t be controlled by bias and you will be more likely to recognize its influence.

Confirmation bias also helps to regulate fear. It provides an illusion of certainty and predictability. In order to consider other views, you first have to be willing to let go of the security blanket your bias provides. It comes down to trusting in your own strength and resiliency.

Welcome situations that provide new perspectives. Observe loved ones in interactions with new people or circumstances and try to see them with fresh eyes. Invite others to share their viewpoints and work to consider that they may be accurate in their conclusions. Even if it threatens your beliefs. Especially if it threatens your beliefs.

Ultimately, it is impossible to be completely impartial in every situation. We believe the person we spend the most time with – ourselves. And we see what we want to see.

eyes

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