Confirmation Bias And How It Hurts Our Relationships
By Karen Edwards, CPQC
We’re all human, so we all deal with confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a phrase devised by English psychologist Peter Wason. Ultimately, it is the tendency of our brain to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existingbeliefs. It’s a survival tendency of our brain to try to prepare us for possible dangers. If our brain believes that “dogs bite”, it will find every evidence of it. If a dog runs up to you on the street, your brain will make that mean it wants to bite you. If the dog licks you, your brain will see that as evidence that the dog is getting ready to bite you. So, of course, you are guarded and fearful and the dog feels the fearful energy and tries harder to seek affection, which continues to scare you. So, your reality is that “dogs bite”.
Confirmation bias is behind most of our limiting beliefs. Whatever we think will be our reality. Our brains make assumptions constantly in an effort to protect us. And those assumptions are naturally going to be negative because that is what our survival brain is there for, to find danger.
I like to think of my survival brain as my default mode. If I don’t choose what mode my brain is in, it will just default to survival and the negative.
How is this hurting our relationships?
First, I believe that one of the best ways of showing love in our relationships is to pay attention. To pay attention to the other person and really hear and see them. Confirmation bias can definitelyinhibit your ability to do that, especially if you have known that person for a long time. Your brain just makes assumptions and isn’t able to keep discovering new things about this person. But we are all changing and growing and there are always new things to discover in our relationships. One way that I’ve seen this in my life is with my son who struggles with ADHD and anxiety. At night, when I’m going to bed, he sometimes comes into my room and wants to talk to me. I have hearing loss, so I wear hearing aids and when I go to bed, I take them out and can’t hear well at all. He sometimes comes in and starts talking to me, I have to stop him, turn on my lamp, scramble, and knock things off my nightstand while I’m searching for my hearing aids. I finally locate them and put them in my ears. I ask him to repeat what he was saying. He says something like “next time you go to the store, will you buy stuff to make pumpkin muffins?” I feel irritated because I’m thinking it could have waited until tomorrow, so I naturally act irritated. He leaves feeling a little embarrassed. The next week he comes in again and we go through the same scenario, except this time my brain says “here he comes with something unimportant to say” so I’m irritated before he even speaks. My brain believes it will be unimportant and so no matter what he says to me, it will be unimportant. It’s significant to note that I really love my son, I worry and think about him all the time and try to come up with ways to connect and help him.
Do you see the problem?This is why I do what I do. Understanding and learning about my survival brain has helped me overcome its negative thought habits in my relationships. I am now able to be more mindful and take each experience with my son as it comes, without pre-judging it. I am able to pay attention and be fully present with him. Healthy relationships don’t just happen, we have to create them with our thoughts. We do not have to stay in default mode. We have access to other regions of our brains that have other tools besides survival…tools like empathy, patience, curiosity, innovation, and discernment.
We can learn tools that help us use our agency in how we think so we can create the lives and the relationships we want. We don’t always get to choose what thoughts come into our heads, but we can choose which ones we keep thinking. My mission as a life coach is to teach these mindful tools to my clients so that they can use their agency to choose what mode their brain is in, instead of living in default mode.
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