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How Availability Bias Messes Up Your Relationships

Availability bias can fool us into putting value on the wrong things.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash
Availability bias can turn arguments into fights.
Source: Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Availability bias, or the availability heuristic, tells us that the thing we can recall the quickest during an argument or debate, or the memory that had the most impact on us emotionally, has the most importance. As you can imagine, this can trip us up in our relationships.

We tend to stick with the idea we have at the forefront of our minds because it's usually safer to stick with what we know, and researching other points of view takes time. And if something has been observed by us, instead of just read about, we tend to overestimate its importance. And of course, a memory with a lot of emotion tied to it — positive or negative — tends to pop up in our minds first.

Availability bias tells you that if a previous partner cheated on you, and those painful memories are fresh in your mind, you are more likely to assume that your current partner will cheat on you. This applies even if your current partner has not shown any signs of cheating.

If something happened recently or had a lot of emotional value to us, it is more likely to cloud our judgment. Availability bias makes us not so good at assessing risk. We tend to over- and underestimate risk based on what has happened to us recently, or what has stuck with us.

For example, you meet someone to whom you are attracted. Your most emotionally-charged memory of someone similar to him or her brings a wave of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. You are more likely to get involved with this new person because you have positive memories with someone similar to him or her. This is availability bias. It can lead you to get involved in relationships that aren't the most healthy for you.

If you are arguing with your partner and you bring up something he or she did five years ago that angered you, you may be falling prey to availability bias. Your brain thinks that event was so impactful that you're bringing it up when it has nothing to do with your current argument. Your brain sort of twists that event to make that information fit into the current scenario. And bringing up past events when you are in an argument with a partner rarely solves any issues.

When I'm working with couples, I two have "ground rules" for arguments: 1. No name-calling. 2. No bringing up of past events. We wouldn't bring up our partners' past behaviors if they didn't bother us — and this is where availability bias comes into play. Because this past behavior bothers you, your brain figures that it is essential to bring it up as an example of why your partner is "wrong."

Availability bias can also lure you into believing that you put in way more work into the relationship than your partner. If one of your most recent memories is that you were washing the dishes because your partner decided to skip it and watch TV instead, you may feel that you are putting forth all the effort. Availability bias blocks out the times that you didn't feel up to doing your household tasks and your partner did them for you. You just remember the most recent event.

The Solution

Realize that you are putting a lot more weight on something than it deserves because it recently happened or because it bothered you. Come up with alternatives to the first thing that pops into your mind. For example, the most recent and emotionally-charged memory you have is your partner telling you they weren't going to get out of bed to check on the baby. You start arguing with your partner about sharing nighttime feedings. Your partner tells you that he or she has been getting up for late-night feedings. The only thing that comes to mind is the last time there was a late-night feeding, and you feel your partner let you down. Hold on a second and do a quick review of other nighttime feedings in the last month: Chances are, your partner has helped out more than you originally thought.

Whenever the first thought comes to mind, consider that it may not be representative of what is happening or representative of what solutions might work best. And if availability bias has clouded how you treat your partner, consider discussing it with him or her.

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