4 Ways Our Brains Fool Us When It Comes to Love
Could your cognitive biases be keeping you from finding "the one"?
Posted February 5, 2019
"Use your head, not your heart." Many of us have been told that our brains will lead us down the right path. But are our brains really so wise in matters of love? Or do they lead us astray?
In the past few decades, researchers have discovered that we are not as rational as we think. We have all sorts of biases that may help us in one realm, but harm us in another. For instance, it was once believed that we make decisions based on careful, deliberate thought. Instead, most of the time, we act based on our feelings, using our cognitive resources to convince ourselves that we made the best decision.
This process works most of the time and keeps us feeling quite pleased with ourselves. There are times, however, when our decisions are more complex, perhaps with more long-lasting consequences, and our convoluted rationalizations are not enough to keep us happy.
Matters of love can be particularly tricky. Many of us may find ourselves wondering if we just have the worst luck in love — or if it’s just us. And sometimes, it is us, but not in the way that we would think. Sometimes our biases can trick us into wanting all the wrong things. Below are four ways that our brains fool us when it comes to love.
1. We think we know what we want — but we don’t.
Perhaps you know someone who insisted that they were looking for something specific in a partner — maybe a certain body type, a specific height, or even a particular occupation — but instead they ended up madly in love with someone who was the complete opposite! This is not uncommon. The reality is that many of us have no idea what we really want.
In my recent speed-dating study, Asian Americans reported that they would prefer to date someone of their ethnicity. At the actual speed-dating event, however, they did not act upon their reported preferences and were not more likely to offer in-group members a second date. In another study, men thought that they were attracted to intelligent women, but actually found them less attractive in real life.
Psychologists have explained this phenomenon through the “hot-cold empathy gap.” According to the hot-cold empathy gap, we anticipate our decisions in a “cold” rational state, failing to account for the emotions we go through when we actually make our decisions. When we actually act, we are in a “hot” state, driven by visceral desires. In my study, then, perhaps participants were dutifully thinking of their parents and their expectations when they reported their preferences, but these thoughts disappeared when they sat across from their speed-dating partners and felt the full force of attraction. (For more about the hot-cold empathy gap and possible ways to handle it, see my blog Why Your Checklist Won't Help You Find Love).
2. We like more choices — as many as possible.
We like choices. We think that choices give us freedom and allow us to maximize our happiness, and we think that we will enjoy having many choices until we actually get them (another example of the hot-cold empathy gap). The truth is, choices can be very bad for our well-being. In the face of too many choices, we often freeze, a phenomenon known as choice paralysis or choice overload. We fail to make a choice.
Those of us who are popular may experience an overwhelming flood of suitors and decide that the best thing to do is to not commit, even if we really want love, because how can we possibly choose? Those less popular may succumb to the illusion of choice (all those potential partners that we can swipe right on!). When we experience a little bump in a budding relationship, all these other “fish in the sea” tempt us and make us think about what could be.
3. We try to be rational by “keeping our options open."
We keep our options open, because we don’t want to miss out. This can, however, be detrimental for two reasons. First, when we make a choice, our brains naturally kick into action to convince us that we have made the best choice. We focus on all the merits of our choice and the weaknesses of our alternatives in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort when our beliefs clash with our behavior. By keeping our options open, we stay in a state of uncertainty.
For instance, say that you have committed to your new partner, and then discover that they have a really unappealing habit. Your brain might kick into action convincing you that this habit actually doesn’t bother you. Or it might convince you that this means you just love your partner that much. With other options available, you would instead struggle to decide whether you should be turning to someone else.
Second, keeping our options open keeps us from properly investing in a relationship. How can we expect a relationship to flourish when we are only putting in a fraction of our effort?
4. We stay with the wrong people, because we don’t want our effort to go to waste.
Putting in effort is great — to a certain point. Putting in effort tends to make us happier in our relationships, due to a combination of cognitive dissonance (the more we put in, the more we like something) and relationship growth. However, sometimes we stay with the wrong people because of sunk cost. You may know that a relationship won’t work, but you don’t want your time and effort to go to waste. You end up staying and staying, and it becomes harder and harder to leave. Most of us also have a dose of unrealistic optimism that further fuels the flame.
It’s clear that our minds play a lot of tricks on us. Oftentimes it’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s not. It’s up to us to take a cold hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are truly operating in our own best interest.
Once we determine that we are, we can let our guards down and be content as a “fool in love.”
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