Let’s talk about cognitive biases. Commitment bias, confirmation bias, and negativity bias are common thinking patterns that can lead to errors in judgment as well as conflict in our relationships. We dive into how they show up in our everyday lives and how becoming aware of our brain’s tendencies can allow us to be more open and curious and to find more joy and connection in our relationships.
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
- Examine your thoughts around quitting, sunk costs, and commitments. Are those thoughts serving you? Do you and your partner see them in the same way?
- Describe a time when confirmation bias stopped you from seeing someone else’s point of view.
- Do the Joy Writing exercise for your partner or another loved one. Reflect on how it felt and how it changes your energy when you read it.
ANNA: Hello and welcome to the Living Joyfully Podcast. We’re happy you’re here exploring relationships with us, who we are in them, out of them, and what that means for how we move through the world.
If you’re new to the podcast, we encourage you to go back and listen to the earlier episodes. We started with some foundational relationship ideas and really have enjoyed how they’re kind of playing off each other and building on one another. And if you’ve already been enjoying the podcast, we’d love it if you could leave a rating and review. That definitely helps new people find us.
In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about a few common cognitive biases that trip us up as we navigate our relationships. Cognitive biases are basically mental shortcuts that our brains will take as they try to quickly process the vast amounts of information in our very complex world.
So, let’s start with commitment bias and the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is associated with the commitment bias, where we continue to support our past decisions despite new evidence suggesting that it isn’t really the best course of action. We fail to take into account that whatever time, effort, or money that we’ve already expended will not be recovered.
And this could be something as simple as finishing a meal or a movie one of you isn’t enjoying, because you’ve already paid for it, or something bigger, like finishing a college program even though, at this point, you’re pretty sure you don’t want to work in that field at all, but you stay because you’ve committed to it.
This can cause friction in our relationships when we have different ideas about money, commitment, and what those things mean. Very often, the idea to stick it out at all costs was pretty much ingrained in us as children. Somehow we’re a failure if we quit or we would be wasting the money, so we have to stick with it to make these expenditures worthwhile.
It’s really worth examining those beliefs if you see them coming into play in your relationships. Understanding sunk costs helps us see that the money is spent, period. The choice then becomes whether I want to take what I’ve learned about myself and move on to something else I can enjoy or stay with something that I don’t.
Take the money out of the equation because it’s already gone, but what can I get out of that situation? What I get out of is up to me. Just learning that we don’t like something has value. Letting go of judging ourselves or our partners as failing when we decide to quit something goes a long way to learning more about each other. And providing unconditional support as we figure out what we want to do with our time.
The conversation is so much more valuable when we’re looking at the nuances of the situation. And this also comes into play big time with children, doesn’t it?
PAM: Oh, it definitely does. We think we’re teaching our children something positive by insisting they stick it out and follow through on their commitments when we sign them up for a rec class or they join a team. But the message they’re often absorbing is, don’t try new things unless you’re really sure you’re going to like it, or you might get stuck having to do something you really dislike.
It can be so helpful to frame these kinds of choices, not as commitments, but as opportunities to try something new. You’re paying for the opportunity for them to try it out and discover if it’s as interesting as they imagine. Insisting someone not quit doing something they’re not enjoying or just judging them negatively when they do is disconnecting and damaging to the relationship. And to what end? Because they definitely learn something more about themselves through discovering they don’t like the thing and they can use that knowledge along with the time they freed up to pursue something else more in alignment with their interests.
So, when you think about it in the bigger picture, they’ll find the things that they love more quickly this way. And it’s in finding the things they really enjoy where you’ll see commitment in action. Even when things get frustrating or inconvenient, they’ll show up. So, it’s not about teaching commitment, it’s about finding the things they are excited to commit to.
And that definitely applies to us as well. Sometimes it’s easier to think about it in the context of another person, but then to make that shift to realize this applies to us. We don’t need to pressure ourselves to follow through on commitments if our enthusiasm has waned and we are ready to move on.
Instead, let’s celebrate that. Yay! Look what we know. We know more about what we like and what we don’t like, or even more about the environments in which we’re comfortable. That’s another big piece of it too, right?
ANNA: Yes. I love celebrating when we’re learning more about who we are and how we want to move through the world. And I love the idea of paying for the opportunity. It’s such a helpful framework. We’re always learning and I want to support my kids, my partner, and myself in trying things that seemed interesting to us.
I didn’t need to have an attachment to the outcome, because no matter what, there will be learning, even if it’s just, I really don’t like this particular activity.
And so, it goes back to conversations too though, because we can talk about the money involved in trying something and we can see if there’s ways to trial it first, and what would be some of our other options. But I didn’t want to get stuck only looking at decisions through the lens of how much it costs.
It’s one part, but it’s not the only, and I usually found it wasn’t the most important part.
And it was actually my finance major husband who first told me about sunk costs when one of our children wanted to quit a class they were taking and it made honoring where they were and what they were learning so much easier, because I could let go of any guilt or baggage around the money part. Because the money’s already spent, and again, this was work I needed to do for myself, as well. Giving myself permission to try something, even if I wasn’t perfect at it, even if I decided at any point along the way that it wasn’t working for me.
PAM: Yeah, it’s interesting how it’s often easier to give grace to other people than it is to give it to ourselves, but we’re people too. And I wanted just to bring back that point, when we talk about sunk costs, it’s not about ignoring the money. It is once it’s spent, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have that conversation up front. Maybe this is gonna be a big chunk of our budget and we want to look at all sorts of possibilities. If there is a way to get some experience with it before spending the larger chunk, that can be a valid way, too. Again, back to the conversations.
ANNA: That’s the richness of the conversations and staying connected and the baby steps from last week. It all wraps together.
PAM: Okay, so now let’s talk about the confirmation bias, which is the tendency to process information by looking for or interpreting information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring what feels like inconsistent information. “That doesn’t make sense. I’m going to toss that.”
It’s hard to be open and curious when we’re filtering information through our existing beliefs. This can sow disconnection in our relationship in a few ways, like discounting the other person’s ideas or always bringing the same old ideas to our conversations. We are less creative.
And in conversations, we tend to listen to the other person with an eye to picking out the bits that match how we see this situation, which we talked about a couple of weeks ago as well. And we’re just waiting until we can jump in with those pieces, rather than hearing the full picture of what they’re sharing.
When our confirmation bias is in full swing, we are not seeing that bigger picture, are we?
ANNA: Not at all. And it really reminds me of our talk about seeing through their eyes from episode four. If we’re only seeing through our eyes, we already know what we’re looking for and it colors everything. I think this comes into play when we’re upset with our partner or children, as well. We tend to see things that confirm our ideas about them.
With our partner, it could be reading into every little behavior and thinking, see, they don’t care about my feelings. Hello, writing stories! And with kids it can be seeing dysregulation and blaming a video game, because we’re thinking that video games are bad, when the dysregulation could just be a need for connection, some food, or some rest, something carried over from school that morning.
With our partners and children, we don’t want to be writing stories about the meaning of things. If we have an idea that’s causing distress, they don’t love me, they don’t trust me, they don’t like this or that, ask them. Open the conversation and enter it with that open and curious mindset we talked about earlier in the month. Upsets can rarely survive the light of inquiry, openness, and understanding.
PAM: Yes. The stories we tell ourselves, right? So, for me, the clue is noticing when I’m telling myself a story about someone else. That’s when I need to step carefully, because I am not them. I don’t know all their personal history or the extenuating circumstances they’re seeing right now. I don’t know they were tired or feeling frustrated by something completely unrelated. I don’t know until I ask.
Because when I’m telling myself a story, it is pretty natural for it to be all about me. And definitely that works pretty well when I am talking about myself, how I’m feeling, how I’m seeing these things. But it can take me down all sorts of unhelpful paths when I’m making assumptions about how others are seeing me.
As you say, it is so much better to have the conversation with them and just check in and see what’s going on.
ANNA: Yes, just get out of our head and get into that moment with our partners and loved ones.
Okay, so the last one we want to touch on today is the negativity bias. So, the negativity bias is the tendency to remember negative events more starkly and more frequently than positive events.
So, this isn’t inherently problematic since it’s a great way to learn from mistakes and avoid negative experiences in the future. You can see it’s actually a survival skill. We quickly learn what can hurt us and what’s dangerous, and we actively avoid those things. Our brain is wired to give us those things at a higher priority in order to keep us safe. We haven’t really evolved out of that primal need to evaluate safety in our environment.
But here’s the thing. Most of us don’t have tigers lurking around the corner, so bringing that intense survival energy to things like our relationships can cause a lot of heartache. We don’t want to constantly be thinking about every negative thing that has happened. It keeps us stuck in the past and doesn’t give our loved ones a chance to grow and change.
PAM: Everybody just sit with that for just a little bit. It is so true that negative experiences stay with us longer and are recalled more quickly in a challenging moment. And, as you say, there’s reasons for that.
And not only does it play out on that personal level. We see it on a societal level, as well. Society in general is focused on the negative things that are happening. So often, those are the stories that are widely in the news and on social media. We find ourselves surrounded by negative stories, which fills us with more negative events to recall at a moment’s notice, round and round. It can become a lens through which we see the world. Our negativity bias seeping into our confirmation bias.
ANNA: Yep. And bringing awareness to these biases helps us understand that we need to be very intentional about changing our focus. Things like joy writing and gratitude practices can help bring our focus to all the things we love, all the things that are actually working.
So, when I’m working with couples, I ask them to do a joy writing exercise. Basically, you each write down a list of things you love about the other, what you love about the relationship, beautiful moments, lovely gestures, things that can fill you with love when you’re thinking about them. Keep it handy, have it on your phone or somewhere you can read it daily.
Rereading it changes our energy and it changes how we interact with our partner, how we see our relationship. It keeps the focus on all the wonderful things there and it fosters that connection. And from a place of connection, we can move through the bumps of life with more ease.
PAM: That is so, so true. Just the act of remembering the good side, alongside the challenges. It doesn’t mean ignoring the challenges. It’s not, let’s just pack those in a box and forget about them. But remembering that so much of our lives are all these good things, too.
So, as you mentioned, gratitude practices can also foster that loving energy towards our partner and our kids. We can make a point of writing down a few things that we’re grateful for related to our partner and kids each day. It need only take a couple of minutes and we can share it with them too.
This practice helps us notice the positive bits in our day and in our relationships, because they are there. And it’s a great way to counteract that negativity bias.
ANNA: Yes. And incorporating these practices and just keeping an eye towards what’s working, what feels good, will help train your brain in a way that’s more useful in our current environment. You’ll still have the skills of recognizing danger, but will be less likely to label something that’s just a bump in the day, or the relationship as something serious that feels very threatening.
PAM: That’s such a big difference there. Put it in the context, in the context of your whole day, not having this one moment that felt uncomfortable or challenging and having that override or color, the whole rest of your day, discount all the other bits that happened that were connecting, that were fun. They have so much value, too.
ANNA: And I think just understanding that our brains tend to do that helps us just put that little check in place. Like, okay, wait a minute. Am I forgetting about all the good things and only focusing, because that’s what brains like to do? And so, then we’re able to take those additional steps and do those practices.
So, here are some questions that you might want to ponder as you explore how these cognitive biases might be playing out in your relationships. So, first, examine your thoughts around quitting, sunk costs, and commitments. Are those thoughts that are serving you? Do you and your partner see them the same way? It could be some really fun discussions to have there.
Describe a time when confirmation bias stopped you from seeing someone else’s point of view. And this, you may even have to watch for, because it’s so natural that we don’t even notice, but just start seeing it as you’re having conversations. Are we looking for what we want to see?
PAM: Yeah. And that’s where that open and curious piece comes in. That’s just that little reminder, for me anyway, just to not get stuck in there. There’s other possibilities.
ANNA: Yeah. Love it. Okay. And do the joy writing exercise for your partner and other loved ones.
Reflect on how it felt and how it changes your energy when you read it. I cannot tell you just how powerful this has been for so many people that have tried it and just really have enjoyed it.
PAM: Yeah, I think that that it really does help just change our energy. Reminding us, oh yeah, these are all true. It’s not like we’re making up anything or trying to fool ourselves. Literally these are the things that we love about our partner, our children, the fun things that we’re doing, the fun pieces of the day.
And the one thing I want to mention about these questions is I love that we’re going through and asking them now. And I really encourage people to take some time to sit with them, because it really is much more helpful I think to be thinking about these things outside of a particular challenge. But don’t wait until all of a sudden y’all are arguing about, oh my gosh, our child wants to quit this activity, to have a conversation about sunk costs. Like you were saying, that could be a very fun conversation.
When it’s heated about a particular thing that’s happening right now that feels urgent and feels like it needs a quick decision, that can be a hard time to have that kind of conversation. But if we can start playing with these ideas and asking ourselves these kinds of questions and playing through them without the pressure or urgency of something happening right in this moment, that can be so very helpful.
ANNA: Right, because you’re steeping in these new ideas and then they’re there for us.
When these challenges come up, we can recall back like, hey, I want to put it through this lens. I want to blow back a little bit and look at open and curious and see what else is at play here. I want to know that I have plenty of time. All these things that we’re talking about can just be things that you keep in your back pocket as you go through and you’ll start seeing how they’re just helpful tools that help you navigate these things, so we don’t have the spirals or the big blowups about it.
So, I hope it’s helping. It’s been a lot of fun to talk about, anyway. So, thank you so much for listening and we hope to see you next time. Take care.
PAM: Yes. Bye, everybody.