Cognitive Biases: A Psychologists Perspective on Dating 

26 Aug

I can see how your gut feeling might be telling you something important, but did you stop to consider how your thinking styles might influence your dating life?

Loving couple sitting together by the window in the apartment and drinking coffee in the morning. No cognitive biases

Do you keep running into the same thoughts and feelings when it comes to dating? Perhaps you find yourself jumping to conclusions, catastrophising or expecting someone to let you down with no evidence to suggest it.

In my work as a psychologist and matchmaker I use CBT to help people understand themselves better. Put simply, CBT helps people breakdown their problems into the interaction between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, situated within the context of the environment they’re in. When we look at thoughts, we consider the cognitive biases, or ‘thinking styles’ you use.

We all have biases in our thoughts that have evolved over time as little shortcuts for our thinking; helping us reduce the time we need to process information and make decisions by using quick rules. This means even the most logical, intelligent person can have thoughts that are slightly skewed.

So when we think, should we trust our judgement or intuition on something or should we listen to it? Well from a psychologist’s perspective I can see how your gut feeling might be telling you something important, but did you stop to consider how your thinking styles might influence your dating life?

Here are the common pitfalls traps that I see at play in dating and relationships:

Black and White Thinking

This is one of the most common and probably earliest biases to develop because it can be such a useful survival strategy. When we’re short of time it’s pretty handy to quickly categorise things into good / bad, safe / dangerous. Raw meat: bad, cook meat: safe and so on. So we fall into this trap of dichotomous thinking but in reality we know that life doesn’t really work that way, life is normally found in the grey areas.

When it comes to dating it can be really easy to decide that if someone does something wrong that puts them in our ‘bad’ books, and furthermore our thinking is primed at that point to psychologically snowball into the negative thinking styles of pervasiveness and perseverance: that this wrong doing means something global about the person’s character that is permanent and won’t change.

As a matchmaker my job is to step in here and stop people from catastrophising and blowing things out of proportion. Ask yourself, is this really a sign of bad character, or can good people make mistakes and mess up? Can we give someone a second chance and see how they make amends?

Confirmation Bias

Another common pitfall is looking for information that already supports what you thought about a situation. For example, in your last relationship your partner cheated on you, you might well believe that this will happen again and you will look for confirmation of the belief that ‘all partners let you down’.

Now sadly, the thing I often see is something called the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have the belief someone will let you down, your behaviour will change in line with this. You might become suspicious, start asking probing questions, maybe even check their phone. This makes your partner feel under scrutiny and that you don’t trust them, which actually makes them more likely to end the relationship than stay, thereby confirming your worst fear that they will let you down.

So what can you do instead? I’m not suggesting that you become oblivious to warning signs that the person you are dating is untrustworthy, but perhaps the best way is to be aware of how this negative cycle of suspicion will play out.

Stop and instead think of other ways to deal with feelings of uncertainty such as talk to them instead about your fears, talk to friends or a matchmaker about how you think you could handle things differently.

Jumping to Conclusions

This means making hasty decisions based on very little evidence. This is the cognitive bias I would say I have worked most with in my clinical practice and is so common. In today’s rushed and hurried society we are so quick to make decisions without knowing the full picture. It acts like a sort of guillotine effect, cutting someone off and deciding they are no good without perhaps knowing the full picture. I hear clients say: ‘well if she hasn’t called me today then she’s no good for me!’ Well that might be the case, maybe she isn’t interested but how can you make decisions without knowing all the information? Make your decisions only, and I mean, ONLY, when you feel you have all the information you would need to make an informed decision.

The other thing I see is the problem when clients have implicit dating rules (this means rules that you don’t even know you had!) For example, how many of us hold rules about how many days we have to wait before we can text back, playing it cool and not looking too keen? Or ‘not putting out’ until the third date, and probably a million more of these tiny little rules, sound familiar?

All of these dating rules we have are an amalgamation of cognitive shortcuts and socially transmitted ideas that, in my belief, give an illusion to oneself of control in the dating scene. When we face the vast wilderness of dating, standing in front of it with an imaginary rule book of do’s and don’ts can feel comforting, it’s a sort of road map into the great unknown. The only problem is, if your road map and your partner’s are different you’re going to struggle to meet up in your dating styles.

I’ve seen countless times how the female rule is that the man should initiate and plan the date but speaking to many of my male clients I can tell you first-hand how many tell me they would love women to take the lead occasionally; taking charge is so attractive. Similarly, if you have to wait for them to text before you can text, that’s all well and good but if you both wait then it’s never going to get off the ground!

So what do you do? Well, as a psychologist I would advise you to stop and consider. Think about and write down all the rules for dating you have and question them. Who did you learn these from, do you think these are fair or even useful, or do you think they might be outdated and getting in the way of your dating? Did you actually just learn these from an outdated movie or novel and is time to update them and think again?

Best of all speak to one of our matchmakers or dating coaches at Vida and they can help you unpick these rules and thinking styles that might be getting in the way of your incredibly exciting dating journey ahead of you!

by Dr Felicity Lynagh

Senior Matchmaker and Coach

Dr Felicity Lynagh is a Senior Matchmaker in the London office. She graduated with a doctorate in counselling psychology* in 2013 and has predominantly worked in client facing roles, helping them across a wide range of areas. Felicity’s main passion has been helping people to better understand themselves and reach their full potential, which is why she was drawn to pursuing a career with Vida. Felicity is warm and personable and has a keen eye for detail, which makes her a natural matchmaker. *Registered as a Chartered Practitioner Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. Felicity is also a member of the Health & Care Professions Council.More by this author