Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking

Eye of the Beholder: The Brain Sabotaging Love

Frequency illusion and confirmation bias

Posted Aug 02, 2015

Purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon
Source: Purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon

Have you ever considered that it may be the way your brain operates that is preventing you from finding true love or healthy relationships? We mistakenly believe our opinions and judgments are based on rational thinking and objectivity.  Actually, our opinions are a result of our brains selectively paying attention to things that confirm our beliefs and ignoring those that do not.[1-6]

Have you ever thought about purchasing a specific type of jacket?  Then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere. How many times have you said or thought, “then I saw so and so wearing one in a movie, on a billboard, and in a magazine ad.  The Universe was sending me a sign.”  The Universe is not in the sign-sending business.  You were experiencing frequency illusion.  On any given day, your brain takes in much more information than it needs to remember.  You see many people wearing jackets, in movies and ads.  You don’t remember all of them because your memory would become bogged down with useless information if you remembered everything you saw.  Thus we only remember what is relevant[7-9] If you’re thinking about buying a specific jacket, that jacket becomes relevant.  You do not see it any more than you would if you weren’t thinking about buying it, or any more than a jacket that you are not considering buying.  You are just noticing it more, which creates frequency illusion.[10-14] 

purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon
Source: purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon

When frequency illusion goes from being a passive phenomenon to an active quest, confirmation bias occurs.  Confirmation bias filters reality to match your expectations by selectively paying attention to the things that confirm your expectations.[1-3, 6, 15-18]   This is problematic when it causes us to stop investigating life and seeking truth.  Examples include journalists selectively reporting facts or scientists compromising the integrity of research paradigms to achieve outcomes that confirm their expectations.[19, 20]

Conversely, political pundits and sports analysts depend on confirmation bias to make a living.  Truth is not important where they are concerned because audiences do not look to them for information, but confirmation of things they already believe.  We love the pundits and analysts who filter information according to our belief system and hate the ones who do not. [2, 3, 15, 16]  

How does confirmation bias affect love and relationships? Well, if you believe that pretty women are gold diggers and a light comes on in the back of their throats when they open their mouths, you will pay attention to the evidence supporting only that expectation. If you believe you need a particular type of man or a woman to be happy, you will notice only the things about that type of man or woman that make you happy. [2, 21] 

If you believe that you could never fall in love with a person who is of a different religion, race, educational background, national origin, or is the same sex or a different sex than you are[22-28] – you will not recall a thousand reasons suggesting you could and remember the few reasons you cannot.

If you believe that you are not good enough, or beautiful enough for someone – then you will find every reason not to be, and never notice the reasons you are.[29-32] Plus, you will pay attention to every thing that they do that confirms that expectation, and not remember things to the contrary. If you believe you don’t you deserve happiness, you’ll step over happiness to get closer to sorrow, while never remembering evidence of former, or forgetting proof of the latter.   If society tells you come from nothing because you grew up poor, you will learn to see nothing and ignore everything. [31-38]

Trying to survive under the cognitive load of our complex world is nearly unbearable for the old brain.  It is constantly calculating trillions of commands.[39, 40]  Therefore, changing its expectation is added work.  The brain is resistant to additional work.  It likes to consolidate and simplify for the sake of efficiency.  That's not as easily accomplishable if expectations are not met.

purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon
Source: purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon

The problem is compounded by living in a curious world that will give a woman a million dollars to see her breasts, but only a penny to witness her soul.  If Madison Avenue and Wall Street did not tell us that men must be this, and women must be that, this has worth, and that does not, you are too this, you are too that, you can go here, but you cannot go there – expectations in the brain might be less harsh and unforgiving.  However, they are not.   Thus, a very unconcerned world shapes our expectations.[41-50] In turn, this subdues rational thinking and objectivity by applying filters to reality and replaces the thirst for information with a hunger for confirmation. [2-4, 6]

So what then to do?  Stop, back away from television, the video games and the computer screens (after you finish reading this of course).  Go investigate life, not expecting to find anything, but just to see what is there.  Do not go out knowing who you are, but rather go forth as you are, with the willingness to become anything in a world where people, places or things could or could not be just about anything.  Most of all… Remain fabulous and phenomenal! 

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UCLA Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the David Geffen School of Medicine


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