Cognitive biases are those sneaky little brain shortcuts that happen without us even realizing it. They make life more efficient and most of the time are helpful… but sometimes they can backfire too! Today we’ll look at three more of these biases so you know what they are, why they happen and how to stop them from messing with your marriage!

Reactance Bias

What Is This Cognitive Bias?

Gotta love this one: when you feel like someone is trying to force you to do something, you react by doing the exact opposite. 

Why This Happens

Reactance happens when a person feels that their freedom to make choices is being threatened.

If you feel that your choice is being taken away, you are likely to act in a way that reaffirms your own ability to choose. Usually, by acting in a way that is the total opposite to what you were being pressured into[i].

Here’s an example of reactance in action: when the legal drinking age was increased from 18 to 21, research shows that young students aged 18 to 20 started to drink much MORE, as an act of defiance against the fact that they weren’t allowed to drink any more. The fact that they were being told they weren’t allowed something just made them want it even more.

In marriage, this may happen when you demand that your spouse does something (e.g., helping with housework, cutting down on some unhealthy behavior, spending more time with the family, etc.), and they feel like their freedom is being threatened. Quite often, they will react negatively by taking even less care of the house, or spending more time away, and so on[ii].

What To Do About It

The first step is to recognize when this bias is at work within yourself. You can learn to challenge this whenever it occurs and we have more on this in the bonus guide for today’s episode.

If you are married to someone who is quite prone to reactance bias, you can also learn to phrase your request differently. Research shows that that there are ways to phrase requests so that they are less likely to trigger reactance bias. These ways are[iii]:

  1. Use less threatening language: instead of “you have to” or “you must” or “I need you to”, try “could you” or “I’d like you to”
  2. Add a ‘postscript’ to your request: adding phrases to the end of your request that make it seem like more of a choice. Eg “it’s up to you, but it would really mean a lot to me” or “only if it isn’t too much trouble”. If you notice, these post scripts underscore that you’re giving your spouse the option to choose.
  3. Empathy: help them see why this particular is an issue for you and allow them to see it from your perspective. This is so your spouse can want to help instead of feeling like they have to help.

Mood Bias

What Is This Cognitive Bias?

When judgments and actions related to your marriage are influenced by your current mood. And this occurs even if your mood has nothing to do with the current situation.

Why This Happens

Emotions, decisions and memories are all linked in the brain. When we are feeling one particular emotion, the brain activates memories and thoughts that fit with the current mood, and dampens memories/thoughts that do not fit with it[iv].

This can cause your mood to affect the way you relate to your spouse, even if the source of your mood has nothing to do with your marriage. Let me give you some examples tied to various brain functions:

  1. Memory: feeling sad or angry causes you to recall more sad and angry memories and makes it harder for you to recall happy memories[v]. For example, if you come home from work feeling frustrated it will be easier to recall things your spouse has done that frustrate you. See how your mood has nothing to do with the current situation? But can impact your marriage?
  2. Attention: feeling anxious or down causes you to focus your attention onto things that fit with these emotions[vi]. For example, if you are feeling sad you are more likely to focus on the negative things your spouse does than the positive. Or, if you are feeling anxious you are more likely to pick up on the things your spouse does that heighten your uncertainty.
  3. Interpretation: events and actions can also be filtered and interpreted to fit with your current mood. For example, if you are feeling anxious you may interpret your spouse’s snappy comment as a sign that they don’t love you and want to leave you, rather than seeing it as just a one-off incident.

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!

What To Do About It

There are two primary coping methods for mood bias.

Stress Regulation. Mood bias is much more pronounced when we are under high levels of stress[vii]. So learning effective ways to deal with stress can stop this bias from impacting you as much.

Emotion regulation. Learning to process and regulate your emotions in healthy ways is the best way to stop them from interfering with your thoughts and actions.

Learning strategies to lift your mood and reduce worry can also help with this. Even simple things like exercise[viii] and adjusting your posture to be more upright and less slouched[ix] can improve your mood and reduce mood bias. So there are all these little things you can do to look after your mind and make sure it’s working in a way that helps you.

Last, but not least…

Confirmation Bias

What Is This Cognitive Bias?

People try to interpret events to fit with their already existing beliefs and opinions. Or, put another way, we look for the data that confirms what we already think is true, rather than using the data to decide what we believe.

Why This Happens

Once a belief forms in your mind, it takes a lot of effort to change or remove it, especially if the belief is something deeply important to you. It is much easier to interpret events around you in such a way that fits with the beliefs you already hold. People will therefore place great importance on information that fits with their beliefs, while downplaying or excusing away info that contradicts their beliefs[x].

Once you form an opinion of your spouse, confirmation bias can cause you to interpret most everything to confirm that belief. This can either be positive or negative. For example, imagine a wife who holds the belief “my husband doesn’t like spending time with me anymore” If the husband has to cancel dinner plans and work late one night, she will interpret that in keeping with her belief, thinking something like “he is hiding from me by staying at work, he never wanted to have dinner with me in the first place.”

Equally, if the wife held the belief “I can depend on my husband to provide for the family”, she would interpret the same situation to fit with this belief, thinking something like “obviously he would rather spend time with me but he needs to prioritize work so that he can provide for us.”

So you can see that this bias is not inherently problematic: it can go either way. How do we make sure it goes the right way for us?

What To Do About It

Admiration is the key. Dr. Gottman[xi] writes that admiration is one way to overcome negative confirmation bias as it helps you to see the best in your spouse and interpret their actions positively.

Developing admiration for your spouse causes you to form positive beliefs about them. This means that you will interpret their actions in keeping with these positive beliefs more often. In this situation confirmation bias will actually be helping your marriage rather than hindering it. It goes to show that these biases in our mind aren’t necessarily a bad thing- you just need to know about them so that you can learn to use them for your advantage.


References

[i] Benjamin D. Rosenberg and Jason T. Siegel, “A 50-Year Review of Psychological Reactance Theory: Do Not Read This Article,” Motivation Science 4, no. 4 (2018): 281–300, https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000091.

[ii] Rosenberg and Siegel.

[iii] Rosenberg and Siegel.

[iv] Riccardo Russo et al., “Mood-Congruent Free Recall Bias in Anxiety,” Cognition & Emotion 15, no. 4 (July 2001): 419–33, https://doi.org/10.1080/0269993004200259.

[v] Russo et al.

[vi] Richard J. Macatee et al., “Attention Bias towards Negative Emotional Information and Its Relationship with Daily Worry in the Context of Acute Stress: An Eye-Tracking Study,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 90 (March 1, 2017): 96–110, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.12.013.

[vii] Macatee et al.

[viii] Séraphine C. Clarke et al., “Cognitive Interpretation Bias: The Effect of a Single Session Moderate Exercise Protocol on Anxiety and Depression,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01363.

[ix] Lotte Veenstra, Iris K. Schneider, and Sander L. Koole, “Embodied Mood Regulation: The Impact of Body Posture on Mood Recovery, Negative Thoughts, and Mood-Congruent Recall,” Cognition & Emotion 31, no. 7 (2017): 1361–76, https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1225003.

[x] Christina Schwind and Jürgen Buder, “Reducing Confirmation Bias and Evaluation Bias: When Are Preference-Inconsistent Recommendations Effective – and When Not?,” Computers in Human Behavior 28, no. 6 (November 1, 2012): 2280–90, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.06.035.

[xi] John Gottman, Catherine Swanson, and James Murray, “The Mathematics of Marital Conflict: Dynamic Mathematical Nonlinear Modeling Od Newlywed Marital Interaction,” Journal of Family Psychology 13, no. 1 (March 1999): 3–19.