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The Dangers of Self-Confirming Bias

I was listening to a podcast and heard one of my favorite self-help authors talking about how we tend to look for evidence to support our beliefs. We, of course, find that evidence which further supports our beliefs, and pretty soon our thoughts have created our future. We have to break this cycle somehow, but it’s hard because we’re so stuck in our ways.

Here’s what I mean about looking for evidence in my own life lately:

  1. When we’re fighting, I look for evidence that my husband is a jerk or that he doesn’t support me. I scrutinize his words and actions and justify my thinking.

  2. I look for evidence that my kids are being brats or that they hate each other or that my daughter is sloppy or that my son is a control freak.

  3. I look for evidence that my workday is going to suck or that the schedule will be hell.

Guess what happens? I find evidence to support each and every one of these. I keep believing them. I tell myself stories about them. I tell other people (including podcast listeners and blog readers) about this.

What if I re-wrote the story? What if my husband adored me? What if he supported me wholeheartedly? What if my kids were amazing small humans learning their way in the world, or what if I looked at them as delightful beings? What if I looked for evidence that my schedule and patients are amazing?

Would I find evidence for these thoughts? Yes. Which ones would I rather believe?

The first time I hear that whatever we expect in life won’t disappoint, it’ll be delivered just as we expected, I was like, “Whoa, is this true?” I didn’t like the implication I might be to blame.

I’ve also heard the subconscious mind compared to Amazon. We place an order, wait for it, and it shows up. If we place an order for “I always end up with loser boyfriends, Bam, another loser boyfriend shows up. If we place an order for “I meet the nicest patients” then they show up, delivered right to my schedule.

This isn’t to say that every bad thing that happens to us is something we dreamed up in our heads first. But I am saying it’s up to us to decide what we’re going to look for in life. I think every self-help book including the Bible has some rendition of this.

I believe it was Malcolm Gladwell who told about his daughter being terrified of snakes. He said it was uncanny how many snakes she sees.  He said he might go a year without seeing a single snake on his property, but within an hour of his daughter coming to visit, she sees a snake. It’s not a coincidence. She’s not only looking for snakes because she’s terrified of them, but she’s putting out vibrational energy into the world. I’m gonna get all quantum on you for a second. So everything and every person is made of matter. Matter is composed of molecules. Molecules vibrate at a certain frequency. We can’t control the tree or our coworkers’ vibrations, but do get a say-so about our own. Between the stimulus and the reaction is time to choose our response.

Have you ever tried to avoid someone but the more you think, “Oh no, don’t let me run into so and so,” the more you happen to see them? For years I was convinced my birthday was destined to be awful.  I blamed it on unmet expectations. The problem was that it wasn’t unmet expectations that were the problem, it was expectations that my birthday would suck. I expected it and it didn’t disappoint. I’d wake up and thinking about how much I hadn’t slept. I’d think how if my family only knew me better, they’d know I didn’t want this pair of earrings for my birthday. Then, one day it hit me. I had a choice. I decided I was going to have a good birthday. I went into it determined to have a great day. And guess what? I did. I looked for the positive side of things, I looked for the way my family made me feel special.

I used to think of extreme examples regarding this whole expectation thing. For example, I’d look for women I know who’ve had one failed relationship after another, or another friend who always had money issues, another acquaintance who job hops every year or so, blaming it on her employer or her coworkers instead of asking herself why no one else changes jobs this much. Then, I was listening to a podcast and the host was talking about getting out of life what you expect. She reflected on her own marriage. Her parents got divorced when she was little and she suffered a lot of childhood trauma. She said no matter how well her husband treats her, she looks for reasons he doesn’t. She looks for evidence their marriage is doomed. She finds it.

This was such an ah-ha moment for me. I don’t look for reasons our marriage is doomed, but I definitely look for reasons Chase is the bad guy when we’re bickering. I look for evidence that he’s a jerk or that he doesn’t love me like I think he should. I reflected back on when we first started dating. Really it was the first few years of our relationship. He adored me and I, him. I saw evidence of this daily and it filled me up and made me want to show my love to him. He looked for evidence that I loved him and saw a version of me that listened to him, did little things like making his lunch, etc. Somewhere along the way we’ve started looking for evidence the other one is behaving in an unloving way. What if I went through an entire day or week where I confidently looked for all the ways I’m adored and loved. I admit I was shocked when it worked. I noticed how Chase did his best not to snore (by taping his mouth), I saw how he told me to have a great day and gave me a peck on the cheek, I saw how he washed the dishes I left out, how he encouraged me to take a bath later that night when the kids were wild.

My sister-in-law unknowingly helped me to see this with my kids.; Especially my daughter. According to Lauren, Chase (my husband) was the golden boy who could do no wrong growing up. He was polite, helpful, bright, teachers loved him, and she felt like she was the opposite. She was the creative one, she was the one who was expected to be wild or misbehave or break curfew or whatever. She didn’t disappoint, she told me. She tried to explain how it felt to live up to everyone’s expectations of her.

I knew how she felt, I was the middle child in my family, the one who bucked the system, the risk-taker. I was the one who jumped out of an airplane, the one who tried to get attention, the one who would do anything for a laugh. Then it hit me, I was doing the same thing with my kids. I was expecting Ollie to be “strong-willed” or “feisty” and I’d definitely labeled her as the creative and Eli as the academic one. I looked for evidence she wasn’t on task, evidence she was messy. Now that Eli is a teenager, I didn’t realize I was constantly scrutinizing what he said and the tone of his now deepening voice. I expected him to be rude or talk back, I expected him to aggravate his sister, and I expected them to fight and act like they hated each other. I went on trips with the full expectation they’d “ruin” the trip with their bickering.

A strange thing is that when the kids are around someone who doesn’t expect them to misbehave, like their grandmas, they behave. Was it me? I didn’t think so. I think it’s that their grandmas look for good behavior, they commend them when they remember to brush their teeth instead of the way I do it which is to try and catch them forgetting to brush their teeth and then act like it’s no big surprise because of course they forgot to brush, they “always” forget.

Another thing I noticed was work. When I expected a bad day, I got delivered a bad day. When I expected a good day, I would inevitably have a good day. It was uncanny how often this was the case. I started setting an expectation each day. Lo and behold, whatever intention I set seemed to magically come true.

My body physically responded, too. I used to tell myself that every time we had an office meeting I got a migraine. Even with my fancy new injection for migraines that has pretty much obliterated them, I still felt certain that when the third Thursday rolled around, I’d get a migraine. This is the funny part. I actually thought we had an office meeting one Thursday last month. I remember packing my lunch and eating breakfast thinking, “better pack some extra coffee, I bet I’ll get a migraine today” and I did. Then about lunch, I heard that we’d canceled the meeting. Within two hours, without taking anything, my migraine disappeared, an unheard-of coincidence.

Think of some problem you have. It can be big like you dislike your spouse, or it can be something little like you’re worried about your kid doing well in math next year. Write out your belief about the thing.

For example, I might write “I am worried about my marriage, we fight all the time and a lot of our friends are getting divorces” Now, is it true we fight all the time? Absolutely true? No, not really. What if you turn it around. We get along, we try hard, we have a strong marriage. Make this your mantra for the next month. Write it on sticky notes and put them everywhere.

If you’ve created a mantra around your expectations of someone’s behavior, spend 5 minutes at night reflecting all the ways they demonstrated that behavior. For example, I decided to look for evidence Ollie is the coolest little girl on the planet.  She’s helpful, bright, and hilarious. For Eli, I look for evidence that he’s a responsible, respectful, and hard-working teenager. These are too long for mantras, so I shortened it to My kids are amazing beings, spending time around them fills me with joy. Mantras may start out feeling like an exaggeration and you may feel like you’re not being totally honest when you say them, but hang in there, after two weeks you’ll be surprised how your mantras change your experiences.

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