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The Psychological Principle Behind So Many Marital Arguments

People self sort and reflexively reach for stories and information that reinforces their opinion. It's called confirmation bias and it isn't just ruining our politics, it's ruining our marriages.

During the 2017 election, there was a lot of talk about bubbles. Conservatives said liberals lived in them; liberals said conservatives lived in them; Washington D.C. was deemed to exist within one. It was as though some great Seuessian morality tale entitled The Better Bubble Battle was playing out in real time. And, weirdly, both sides were right. The data laid bare the reality: People self sort and reflexively reach for stories and information that reinforces their opinion. It’s called confirmation bias and it isn’t just ruining our politics, it’s ruining our marriages.

One of the most well-documented and pervasive psychological tendencies, confirmation bias is a natural inclination to seek out information or interpret it in ways that confirms what we would, or would like to, believe. In other words, people naturally tend to favor information that confirms their preconceptions. Confirmation bias is why your Facebook feed agrees with you and also why you are becoming increasingly convinced that your spouse is treating you unfairly.

Arguments become heated when transgressions are understood in the context of trends, which one party is certain are real and the other denies. How does this happen? Spouses stockpile confirming evidence in a questionable way. (“She didn’t text me back right away so she must still resent me for contradicting her in front of the kid.”) In the confines of marriage, such thinking can be incredibly toxic, transforming spats into scream-until-you’re-hoarse throwdowns.

“Confirmation bias becomes problematic during periods of increased stress — financial difficulties, major disagreements, etc.,” says Dr. Richard Shuster, a clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping Podcast. During these times in particular, when we’re already primed to attack, Schuster says “it causes us to become further entrenched in our position which may be inaccurate.”

The term confirmation bias was coined in the 1960s by psychologist Peter Wason. Wason conducted a number of studies — including a rather famous one in which he presented a group with a numerical sequence and asked them to figure out its pattern  — that proved people tend to confirm things they already suspect to be true.

An example: Let’s say a husband and wife are arguing about the amount of time he spends with her. The husband decides to surprise his wife by taking her on a vacation but he has to put in some extra hours at work to earn more money to pay for it. The wife is going to use this as proof that her husband does not want to spend time with her and then becomes even more hostile.

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“Confirmation bias is always present in one form or another because it’s a natural tendency rooted in the way we think,” says Dr. Vijay Ram, a cognitive scientist and visiting research scientist at the University of California. Confirmation bias, Ram says, represents a “natural way that our minds filter and make sense of the overload of information available to us.” Basically, with so much data coming at us all the time, we need to process it through our natural filter. This becomes a problem, he says, “when it negatively distorts reality and we reject information that contests that distortion.”

Everyone is guilty of confirmation thinking in the heat of an argument or the lead up to a confrontation. That’s how Timmy skinning his knee becomes a knock-down on laxity with children’s safety. So what can be done to avoid such toxic thinking from entering into your relationship? Well, as the G.I. Joes once wisely said, knowing is half the battle. By simply having one or both partners aware of the existence of confirmation bias and our natural tendency towards it, a couple is more likely to recognize and avoid the behavior.

“Awareness and intellectually questioning your beliefs only goes so far,” Ram says. “Building skills of emotional self-expression can help you diffuse emotions, be open to contrary ideas, and become a better communicator with your partner. This can help reduce the likelihood of seeding negative beliefs and getting narrowly attached to them.”

“Self-expression,” he continues, “is more of a skill than just a task — the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more relief you’ll gain from it. It’s powerful enough to combat confirmation bias”

If you are waist deep in an argument and recognize this type of thinking in your partner, Shuster says it’s key to focus on getting he or she to express what they are emotionally feeling and not lead with the facts. “This will help foster a positive outcome,” he says. And if there’s anything we know from election season, it’s that emotion always trumps fact.