7 Cognitive Biases That Are Harming Your Personal Relationships

A cognitive bias is a kind of filter in the human brain that takes objective experiences and causes us to experience them in subjective ways. The end result is that cognitive biases affect how we perceive the behaviors of those around us and how we think others perceive our own behaviors.

There are hundreds of different cognitive biases that we can exhibit throughout our lives, and most of them are generally harmless (although we should still be aware of them). However, there are several cognitive biases that can be damaging to our relationships—and ourselves—if we aren’t careful to spot them and rein them in.

1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret actions and behaviors in ways that confirm our already-held beliefs and conclusions. This can rear its head in many different situations, but here’s one example: Let’s say you develop a crush on a friend who’s very friendly with you. You want to think that they reciprocate those feelings, so you interpret their platonic gestures as romantic ones.

On the one hand, this is all part of the normal love dance that humans do. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this could backfire and cause a rift in what’s otherwise a great friendship.

Confirmation bias can come up in non-romantic situations, too. For instance, if you’ve erroneously concluded that one of your friends has a certain personality trait, you may interpret everything they say through that lens and that might result in friction and tension.

2. Hostile Attribution Bias

Hostile attribution bias is the tendency to inject malignant intent into others’ actions when their behavior is neutral or benign. If you’re always suspicious about people’s gestures and words—or whether they have ulterior motives—then you may have a case of hostile attribution bias.

It’s important to rein this one in because it’s quite repulsive. People don’t like being suspected of foul intentions, especially when they’re just being themselves around you or trying to do something nice for you. And if you’re constantly attributing hostile intentions, they’ll get sick of it fast.

3. Empathy Gap

Empathy gap is the tendency to interpret actions and behaviors around you through the lens of your current emotional state, and the inability to understand a different emotional state from your current one. In other words, your emotional state at any given time has a huge effect on your behavior, thoughts, and decision making processes in that moment.

For example, when you’re drunk on love, it can be near impossible to empathize with your friends who are single, and this can cause a lot of friction if you aren’t careful. Or if you’re miserable with your work life, you may be unable to celebrate with others who are happy in their own careers, and may even grow envious or bitter toward them.

Empathy is important in any healthy relationship, so being able to close this gap is crucial.

4. Negativity Bias

Negativity bias is the tendency to remember negative events more starkly and more frequently than positive events. This isn’t inherently bad since it’s a great way to learn from mistakes and avoid negative experiences again in the future.

But there’s a fine line between “remembering negative events” and “clinging onto negative events.” When negativity bias is left unchecked, it follows you around in the form of emotional baggage and proves to be a burden in most—if not all—of your relationships.

Negativity bias can also cause you to be more risk-averse and act more reserved. In the case of romance, if you’re always dwelling on the times you got rejected while forgetting all the times you weren’t, you’ll be less and less likely to try again next time. Negativity bias is a huge confidence killer, so it’s best to nip it in the bud when you can.

5. Status Quo Bias

Status quo bias is the tendency to want circumstances to remain the same; any deviation from the norm is seen as undesirable. In other words, people with this bias hate change and will do anything to preserve as much routine and familiarity in their day-to-day life as possible.

Taken to the extreme, status quo bias can cripple you and make you reluctant to leave your comfort zone. Maybe you don’t want to try new foods or new experiences with your friends. Maybe you just want to stay in at home all the time. Maybe you settle for friends or lovers who are a bad influence over you, yet you cling to them because they’re familiar and all you know.

6. Ingroup Bias

Ingroup bias is the tendency to show preference and favoritism to members of your “in-group” at the expense of those who are in the “out-group.”

While ingroup bias isn’t necessarily bad, it can be when taken to the extreme. The concept of an in-group implies that there’s a commonality that bonds everyone in the group, and that commonality is usually a lifestyle or way of thinking. Over time, this can encourage an echo chamber environment—and a compulsion to change who you are so you continue to fit in.

This is damaging to you (and everyone in the in-group) because you’ll lose your sense of individuality and succumb to groupthink. And God forbid anyone ever falls out of the in-group because they may end up becoming the target of hostility from the remaining members of the in-group.

7. Reactance

Reactance is the tendency to act or think differently than how you’re told to act or think, even if the presented action or thought is in your best interest. In extreme cases, you may have done or thought that particular thing on your own, but as soon as it was verbalized by someone else, you feel compelled to change your course (perhaps out of spite).

You can see how this could burden personal relationships, especially with those who are looking out for you and want the best for you. They make suggestions and you ignore them or do the opposite—and each instance places additional strain on the relationship. If you prioritize personal freedom over relational compromise, you’ll eventually lose those relationships.

Not only that, but reactance can make you susceptible to manipulation. That’s where the whole idea of “reverse psychology” comes out to play. If you predictably do the opposite of what you’re told, it’s surprisingly easy for malevolent people in your life to control you.