Cognitive biases are assumptions and judgments and error that our brains automatically make without us even knowing it’s happening. They are like automatic mental shortcuts. But the problem is: they could be messing with your marriage without either of you even realizing it!

We have a brainy episode for you this week.  We’re going to be talking about cognitive biases in marriage. This is about how your brain gets in the way of your connection with one another, and how to deal with that.

What Is Cognitive Bias?

As we pointed out in the intro, biases are assumptions, judgments and errors which our brains automatically make without us knowing. Often they are “shortcuts” the brain takes to help us process information and make decisions more quickly. Biases are not necessarily bad nor are they a sign of mental illness (although they do get stronger when we are stressed or experiencing anxiety/depression), and often they are useful[i].

But sometimes they can influence our thinking in unhelpful ways without us knowing. These biases can impact all areas of life, including marriage. So it’s good to know about them, why they happen, how they affect us and what to do about it.

The Spotlight Effect and The Illusion of Transparency

What Is This Cognitive Bias?

The spotlight effect is “the tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which they believe that others see and attend to their external appearance”[ii]. Essentially it means you expect people to notice things about you (like how you look) and notice things you do (both good and bad) far more than they actually do.

This was originally tested by a study done in 2000[iii] by asking study participants to walk through a crowded cafeteria while wearing an embarrassing t shirt. The participants expected that everyone would notice them and judge them for wearing a silly shirt, but in actual fact hardly anyone noticed or cared. That’s overestimating the extent to which others notice your appearance.

The illusion of transparency is similar, but to do with our thoughts rather than our outward actions. It is the “tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which their internal thoughts, feelings, and attitudes ‘leak out’ and are seen by others.[iv] We expect others to be able to read our thoughts and emotions a lot more clearly than they actually do. This is also sometimes called the “mind reading bias” because we expect people to be able to read our minds much more accurately than they really can.

Why This Happens

Our actions, thoughts and appearance are always obvious to us than to others. So when we do something embarrassing we expect it to be just as obvious to everyone else. Equally, if we do something good or succeed at something, we expect everyone else to notice and can become annoyed when they don’t. Or when we see something a certain way, it is abundantly clear to us and we expect others to be just as lucid.

How This Cognitive Bias Affects Marriage

These two effects can lead to increased anxiety: thinking that your spouse is scrutinizing your appearance and thoughts can lead to high anxiety and over-compensating by trying to mask your emotions. Eg “I have to look my best all the time or my spouse will notice and think I’m not making any effort” or “If he/she notices I’m upset it will upset him/her too, so I need to make sure it doesn’t show”

They can lead to feeling unappreciated: thinking that your experiences are obvious to your spouse can leave you feeling unappreciated when they don’t react. Eg “He didn’t even notice my new hairstyle” or “I was obviously upset and he/she didn’t even ask why”

They can also contribute to poor conflict resolution. Thinking that your grievances are obvious to your spouse can lead to conflict avoidance or passive-aggressive behavior. E.g., “I shouldn’t have to tell him/her why I’m upset! it should be obvious!”

What To Do About It

Say what you’re thinking. Instead of assuming your spouse already knows, say what you are thinking! Really it’s as simple as that. Your spouse isn’t a mind reader. They have their own life and their own thoughts which can preoccupy them so that they don’t notice every little detail about your life right away. Give them some grace and if there’s something you want them to pay attention to, let them know.

Shift your focus away from yourself. Both of these biases are correlated with spending a lot of time thinking about your own thoughts and appearance during social interaction. So shifting your attention to think about your spouse’s perspective will help you avoid getting stuck in your own self-perception[v]. Learn to spend less time focused on your own thoughts and experiences, and instead try to see things how your spouse might see them.

Getting Into the Swing

Our bonus guide for this episode goes into the research to look at how you can best help your body get into the swing of shift work and adjust your sleep cycle in the most efficient manner possible. You can get access to this additional information by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People for just the price of a couple coffees a month!

The Availability Heuristic

What Is This Cognitive Bias?

The availability heuristic is the tendency to make judgments and decisions based on whatever information you can quickly call to mind[vi]. This bias means that more recent events and also events that were particularly unusual or extreme have a strong impact on our judgment, even if they do not accurately reflect reality.

For example, if you read a news story about violent crime you may start to think there is a high risk of it happening to you. Or if someone you know gets diagnosed with a rare disease you may start to worry that you or your family will get the same disease. You may have experienced this kind of “scare” or craze in your community following a particularly shocking news story. These strong examples in your memory outweigh the fact that the odds of these bad things happening are still very low[vii].

Why This Happens

Our brains are programmed to make quick decisions and snap judgments because it is mentally less demanding to do this than to weigh every bit of evidence before making a decision. So the brain often makes decisions based on whatever info comes to mind first[viii].

How This Cognitive Bias Affects Marriage

This bias means that a very extreme event can change your view of the entire marriage even if it was not a true reflection of the overall character of your marriage. For example a single, very intense fight may cause you to think that your marriage is failing, even if in reality you very rarely disagree. It’s not that you fight often, it’s just that this one fight stands out in your memory whenever you ask yourself “am I happy in my marriage?”

Now, the availability heuristic can affect marriages for both good and bad. If it is easy to think of examples of good times with your spouse then you are likely to be highly satisfied with your marriage. But if it is easy to recall unpleasant times with your spouse then you will rate your marriage as being bad. This is partly why marital satisfaction is often cyclical: strong marriages get stronger while difficult marriage get worse.

What To Do About It

Celebrate the good. Keeping happy memories close in your mind by reminiscing about them together, keeping photos around the house etc makes it easy to recall happy times, leading you to feel more satisfied with your marriage[ix]. Make it easier to remember good times and your brain will pick up on them.

Don’t let single events distort your views. Once you are aware this bias occurs, you can counteract it by slowing down your judgment and trying to think of examples that agree/disagree with the ones that easily spring to mind. For example if you’ve just had a fight and it is making you think your marriage is failing, think back on how many fights you’ve had in the last few months. Is the current example a true reflection of reality? By thinking rationally in this way it is possible to prevent the bias from impacting your perception of the marriage.

So I hope you’ve found this look at the mind’s little biases and errors interesting. It can be really fascinating to start spotting these biases in yourself (and your spouse). Next week we’ll be looking at some more of these biases and how you can stop them affecting your marriage.


References

[i] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Reprint edition (London: Penguin, 2012).

[ii] Michael A. Brown and Lusia Stopa, “The Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency in Social Anxiety,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21, no. 6 (January 1, 2007): 804–19, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.11.006.

[iii] Thomas Gilovich, Kenneth Savitsky, and Victoria Husted Medvec, “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 2 (August 1998): 332–46, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.2.332.

[iv] Brown and Stopa, “The Spotlight Effect and the Illusion of Transparency in Social Anxiety.”

[v] Brown and Stopa.

[vi] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

[vii] Kahneman.

[viii] Kahneman.

[ix] Doris G. Bazzini et al., “The Effect of Reminiscing about Laughter on Relationship Satisfaction,” Motivation and Emotion 31, no. 1 (March 2007): 25–34, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9045-6.