Love Is Basically Bias, So What Can You Do?

a photo of a Chansey doll prancing through a garden of fuschia flowers
Image by Kasadera / CC BY

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

Fluffy is a frequent contributor to Poly Land. Here are the other articles they’ve written for us:

    1. I’m Too Anxious to Be Jealous
    2. Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again 
    3. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
    4. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
    5. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
    6. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 
    7. When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It.

Fluffy’s regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

Without any further ado, here’s their newest article:

Love Is Basically Bias, So What Can You Do?

I have a channel with some of my best friends where we talk pretty regularly. Sometimes it’s for emotional support, but often? We are just bullshitting. Talking about our day, random thoughts we’re having at the moment, incubating ideas for writing, and more.

And sometimes really brilliant ideas spark from it all.

“He was stupidly biased towards her and couldn’t let that go. Bias is stupid. It causes problems. But love is basically bias, so what can you do?” Page asked over the course of several messages where we were talking about past experiences with potential metamours, bad friends, and good people making bad choices.

“I love this as an article title,” I say.

“LMAO, yass,” Page replies.

“Like I can kinda see the article now,” I continue, “especially in light of my recent work LITERALLY being about bias.”

“What’s it about?” she asks.

“Oh,” I start, non-committally, “talking about bias as both a construct and a mechanism, then tying that into loving relationships and literally ending with ‘so what can you do’ and talk about awareness vs skills.”

“Oh yeah, that’s a great article.”

And here we are.

Bias as a Construct Process

Bias has been studied in many different contexts over the last century. While its roots primarily lie in economics, it was quickly brought into psychology. And after all, what is economics but psychology with money?

In general, bias has three aspects to it: cognition, affect, and behavior. In my academic work I am arguing (and apparently persuasively) that bias is an internal process that results in these three aspects.

Specifically, I argue that bias happens as a result of an individual identifying otherness, assigning group membership to the other, and comparing between their own identity and information they have about that group. These are the three steps of social identity theory, called social categorization, social identification, and social comparison respectively. While this seems intuitive, the connection has not been made in peer-reviewed literature! Yet. Hopefully I’ll be the person bringing it to the field of management science next year (once I collect some data).

So, after categorizing the other person as other, identifying which social group they belong to, and then comparing that social group to their own and others, a person then develops thoughts (cognitions), feelings and attitudes (affect), and behaviors (er, behavior) toward the other individual.

Cognition

Anyone who’s done CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy; yeah, sometimes I think it’s one of the other things, too) know that cognitions are reactive thoughts that we have about a given thing. Put less generally, a cognition is a specific judgment or understanding of a given topic or experience. Cognition itself is an active process; it’s a response to stimuli. According to psychology, cognition is how we make sense of something and understand the world around us.

Fortunately, we evolved with many cognitive shortcuts that have served us well on our path to apex predator-hood. “Fire is hot!” turns to “Fire is BAD!” very quickly and allows us to avoid repeatedly burning ourselves on a campfire. “That rustling bush is a tiger about to maul me” protects us from, well, the behavior of asshole tigers out for what they consider a pretty great third date.

Unfortunately for us as well, this adaptation can be maladaptive in our modern world where fire is our friend (not the huggy kind, though), and tigers are less dangerous than other things with orange hair and skin. While our ability to make snap judgements on scant information sometimes still aids our survival, more often it puts us at odds and protects us only from challenging our worldview.

This is because we move from facts to judgments incredibly quickly. And often without good cause. When this happens, we experience cognitive bias.

“Ze is yelling at me” is a cognition that is entirely factual. This isn’t a biased cognition because it is a factual statement.

“Ze is yelling at me because” is when we start to encounter judgment and implicit associations either with the individual, their past behaviors, or our past experiences and beliefs.

Often cognitive bias comes in the form of direct bigotry which supports systemic structures that marginalize specific social groups. Racist, anti-semitic, islamophobic, queerphobic, transphobic, etc. beliefs are forms of cognitive bias, but don’t represent the structures that marginalize those groups and others.

Cognitive bias is so difficult to acknowledge, understand, or be aware of within ourselves because we actively protect our beliefs. Sometimes this means denying truth or new information that comes to us (a la cognitive dissonance). Sometimes this means soothing the bias by viewing the other person as different from the rest of their group or exceptional in some way (a la tokenism) which lets the person hold negative beliefs about an individual’s social group while holding benevolent beliefs about the individual.

However, bias can be positive! Because bias is a judgment without complete information (or that results from a willingness to ignore information to protect our beliefs), if we feel positive regard for others (more on that in affect), we can ignore information that contradicts it. We believe someone is a “good guy” because he calls his mother every Tuesday not because that is a quality of goodness, but because it mirrors behavior that others we consider “good guys” have done in the past.

I absolutely love my best friends. For that reason, even when confronted with information that would usually bother me about people, I find ways to understand, reconceptualize, or make allowances for what I would usually consider bad behavior or negative qualities.

Page is notoriously (and self-admittedly) hard to get in contact with. While for most other people this would annoy me, I find it an endearing quality of hers because I know how her regard works and it makes me value the time she spends on and with me even more.

Lady Heat is hasty, and quick to action, sometimes too quick by my estimation. Despite the fact that I would usually distance myself from people like that, I know her well enough and understand the roots of that behavior and sometimes even use her example to help me be better.

My judgments about individuals with these behaviors would be completely different when removed from my beliefs that these are wonderful women that I am lucky to have in my life.

Affect

On the other side of the internal parts of bias, affect describes emotions and feelings about a given thing. Affect (and emotions and feelings) have hugely divergent sets of literature depending on if you’re coming at them from management, economics, psychology, neurology, sociology, or more. Indeed, even within those often disparate fields, there are contradictory understandings of what emotions are and how they are constructed.

Typically in bias literature, affect is understood as our valenced reaction toward another person. That is, if we feel positively or negatively disposed to the person. It’s… a lot more complicated than this, and depending on exactly how bias is being studied is often ignored or combined with cognitive bias into one factor (usually just called cognitive bias, but sometimes “internal bias” or similar). Irregardless, affective bias is different and instantaneous.

Did anyone else flinch when I used that “incorrect word,” irregardless? Or do you know any other grammarians who gnash their teeth at that and similar mistakes? That is (negative) affective bias. The simple presence of two characters (ir) where they don’t belong cause negative feelings and emotional responses.

Generally, I ascribe to the school of thought that suggests emotions are a response to stimuli, like cognition, but that this response doesn’t go through a logic-flow that sometimes skips steps, creating bias. On the contrary, the response is instantaneous, strong, and intuitive. Often our emotions are responses to physical stimuli. For example, a dull pang of hunger sometimes causes us to feel angry. Anyone who’s been hangry and not noticed they’re hungry knows how devoid of thought that process is.

Let’s not even dig into the nuance of affect vs emotion. Suffice it to say, affect is enduring and a repeated response to the same stimuli, while emotions are temporary responses.

Sometimes, our cognitive biases are informed by our affective biases.

Affective bias occurs when we experience strong emotional response to people or groups simply on the basis of their (perceived!) group memberships. Individuals who hate and fear Jews, for instance, have a strong (negative) affective bias against us, often that is uninformed by (though later rationalized through) cognition.

Unlike cognition, which can be actively challenged, recreated, and purposefully changed, affective responses to things are ingrained and generally can’t be purposefully impacted. The process of change for affective biases is long, arduous, and typically hindered by their presence (e.g. a person who hates transgender people has no reason to want to not hate us).

There is some literature out there that suggests that negative affective responses to things can be changed or even given a positive valence with behavioral change or explicit cognitive reframing, and indeed this line of thinking has been supported with empirical studies. Things like the mere exposure effect (the more we are around something the more we like it), the Ben Franklin effect (the more favors we do for another person or group, the more we like them), and similar explorations of cognitive dissonance show affect can be changed.

Specifically, the suggestion is that a positive emotional response while holding a negative belief causes a cognitive crisis. We wouldn’t do something kind for people we didn’t like, which then means that we must like them. That affective change then impacts our cognitive beliefs about the individual or group.

It’s a slow and heavily incremental process of change, but this makes it more powerful and even harder for us to be aware of. Indeed, there are some who suggest that all cognitive bias stems from affective biases, and exists primarily as a rationalization of the affective bias.

Similar to cognitive bias, then, affective bias can be positive! Even after being apart longer than we were together, seeing E makes me feel warm, fuzzy, and I tend to grin. We were not a good fit together; I did too much emotional labor, our sexual interests didn’t sync well, and we lived too far apart for me. But I love him. Every thought I have about him is positively valenced through my emotions because of that love. I build positive cognitions to support that love and positive regard, creating a positive and self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Similarly, I have a positive affective bias towards other queer folks. This has burned me in the past (two words: queer nazis), and now I often take a step back to ask how much of my opinion about a new person is being colored by my positive regard for queerness.

Behavior

Perhaps the easiest to explain is behavioral bias. Biased behaviors are behaviors that typically result from a combination of cognitive and affective bias, or that uphold systemic marginalization of social groups. In this way, both upholding personally-objectionable-but-systemic discrimination (e.g. enforcing transphobic dresscode policies) as well as personally-motivated behavioral discrimination (e.g. spitting on a visibly gender non-conforming person) are biased behaviors, though their roots and motivations are very different

In management we rarely study cognitive and affective biases; instead we study the outcomes of biased behavior. This has its merits and flaws. The largest flaw is that we do not know if what we are labeling as biased behavior (typically, not hiring an individual or rejecting a resume for interview) is the result of biased cognition and affect, or if it’s unrelated to the type of bias we are studying. This can be mitigated with manipulation checks (e.g. “did you believe this person was transgender?”) and waggled eyebrows, but it’s cold comfort. The next biggest flaw is that it’s hard to use the knowledge generated from such studies to effect change. We know that transgender people are discriminated against, what we don’t understand is how, why, and how to mitigate that behavior.

The main merit of this is that it’s cleaner. Empirically, a concept called “parsimony” is much beloved and sought after. Essentially parsimony is the simplest, most economical explanation for what’s being observed. If we can show our sample chooses between two resumes that are fundamentally the same in a predictable way on the basis of whether or not one of those resumes have specific markers (e.g. “ethnic” names, LGBT-related extracurriculars, or name incongruence), then the most parsimonious answer is, of course, that this is a biased selection.

The issue with the state of study around behavioral bias is that it ignores systemic implications of behaviors. The questions around how these behaviors contribute to and reinforce the systems that marginalize others (and how they further reinforce and recreate cognitive and affective bias) are still nascent and we don’t understand it well. It also allows us to ignore the question of intent and how or if impact on the person changes the bias. For instance, a benevolent bias might be not choosing the LGBT resume as a form of protection from an LGBT-intolerant organization.

Regardless, behavioral bias can be positive as well. From giving people extra undeserved time or space, to performing emotional labor, to simply going to events we do not enjoy, people do things that show a positive regard for the other person often, especially in relationships. Unfortunately, because of the messy confluence of intent, impact, and more it can be difficult to say when a given behavior is beneficial, belligerent, or biased. Indeed, sometimes the same behavior can be seen as different from multiple angles. How the behavior is observed colors the perception of it as biased as well as the valence.

Bias as a Mechanism

Perhaps one of the most overlooked and under-recognized impacts of bias is the most obvious: the actual results for the individuals it targets. The implicit assumption and expectation is that bias has a universal impact on people of a given social group, however the different parts of bias combine to create an interpersonal outcome (from the biased person to the other).

This outcome then combines with others like it in countless other situations to create a larger core of structures, some that remain informal or even regional, and others that become systematic and formalized.

Often research on bias (that is, as a wide construct) is discussing it in terms of systemic impact, while studying it at the interpersonal level. Very rarely do we study it at an intrapersonal (that is, within the self) level outside of cognitive psychology and neurology, despite bias being an intrapersonal experience with interpersonal outcomes and systemic implications.

So What Can You Do?

Positive bias resulting from love can be wonderful and fulfilling. But it can also leave us vulnerable, unsafe, and easily taken advantage. Chronic people pleasers are especially prone to easily developing benevolent bias because it feels good. Even when it doesn’t become maladaptive, it’s beneficial to understand how our emotions and beliefs impact our behaviors.

Specifically there are three things you can do: awareness building, cognitive reframing, and emotional fact-checking.

Awareness

The most crucial step, awareness allows you to recognize when and if your feelings of love, loyalty, or more are giving you rose-colored glasses and making you do things you wouldn’t otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult step.

Building awareness requires you to actively consider and reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One of the best ways to do this is with what I call a love journal.

Similar to a gratitude or appreciation practice, a love journal requires you to reflect on three things that you love or enjoy about your partner(s) or close friends. After listing those three things, write a paragraph on how those three things impact you, and why you like them.

E is so thoughtful. He’s ridiculously attractive in the quirky way that fits my aesthetic. He flexes his muscles whenever I give him a loving touch.

I’d be lying if I said I weren’t willing to overcome my original hesitance to date him due to finding him attractive; pale with a generous full-body allotment of freckles, he had a slight belly but a strong, masculine frame and a sly, boyish smile. Of course I found him physically attractive. And later his body without clothes, geeze.

But his thoughtfulness kept me near him; he would remember small details of things I would say, surprise me with having learned more about them months later. He learned the Hebrew alphabet from me over the course of one cuddle session on his couch and still sings it to me sometimes. And he asks about whatever was on top of my mind when we last saw each other, even months later.

After a couple years together I shyly admitted that muscles were a major turn-on for me and ever since if I touch his shoulder or squeeze his arm to say hello and a silent “I love you” he’ll flex that muscle. It always makes a lump form in my throat, and a grin alight on my face.

Through entries like this (though this is, of course, written now and for this essay), I was able to adequately describe and recognize the root of my affection for E. Likewise, I eventually started to explore behaviors and better able to recognize when he did things for me he didn’t for others.

This practice made me feel closer to him because it was a relationship with both mutual positive regard and that made us both better people. It also helped me to define and reify behaviors that I liked, that he liked, and allowed me to be aware of when I was doing things “for” him when I wouldn’t for others I wasn’t dating.

Cognitive Reframing

One of the easiest ways to create actual change in your beliefs and reasoning are to reframe them directly. When done right, a good relationship will be made stronger, while those that are causing you to go against your values will be easier to identify.

But it requires a basic awareness of the thoughts and stories you tell yourself about your partner. The easiest way to get there is to look for what I call cognitive pits. These pits can be detected because a thought (e.g. he is so amazingly sweet) require a leap of logic that attributes a quality to that individuals (e.g. He bought me flowers. I love flowers. He knew I would love them and which ones to get. He is amazingly sweet).

A cognitive pit isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Indeed, many are beneficial (think back to “fire bad”). Some, like the one above are similarly harmless. Likewise, while cognitive reframes are often used to combat intrusive negative thoughts (e.g. “I’m stupid” vs “I’m stressed and having a hard time handling all of my responsibilities), a cognitive reframe does not have to cancel out the thought it is modifying.

Rather, I liken it to building a bridge over the pit. Instead of making the leap from flowers to sweetness, building the bridge gives a firmer foundation for our judgments, and allows us to re-tread and reinforce our positive feelings and watch out for when someone is taking advantage of us.

For instance, let’s say he only buys me flowers when we’ve fought the night before. This technique of cognitive reframe will help me to catch that detail to identify manipulative behavior before it becomes internalized. This avoids future cognitive dissonance where I have to reconcile the belief “he is sweet!” with “he is manipulative” or worse. It also allows me to see the pattern and challenge it directly. On the other hand, it might allow me to better understand his communication style; if he has difficulty apologizing, perhaps he uses gift giving instead. This might make it easier for me to forgive him.

If nothing else, building our bridges helps us remain cognizant of why we love the people we do. It helps us to further appreciate them, how they work, and how we as human beings work as well. In the end this can give us the ability to hack our own emotions, and give our partners emotional cheat codes. Hopefully, it will keep us safe from those taking advantage of us, too.

Emotional Fact-Checking

One of the most insidious things about love-as-bias is that it means we act out and create beliefs that aren’t consistent with who we are as people. Whether it’s people who find themselves at sporting events regularly when they hate being there, doing iffy favors that make you uncomfortable, or even just purposefully not asking about something you know will make you uncomfortable, if can be easy to hand-waive these behaviors because “you do things for the ones you love.” We also create beliefs about who our partners are, even when these beliefs don’t stand under scrutiny.

Emotional fact-checking is about being honest with ourselves about our behavior and our reasons for doing things. It’s taking a fact (e.g. “I do not ask how work was”) and involves taking an inventory of the reasons why and how you would handle this with a more neutral person. It involves keeping a real inventory of who the person you are considering is, and how your about each piece of them impact your behavior.

For me emotional fact checking can be anything from an Excel sheet (they help me remember information about people and notice patterns!) to an occasional entry (similar to the love journal) where I reflect on a behavior, a belief, or a feeling.

More than that, thought, it’s about figuring out a solution to any perceived incongruence between these factors. Below is an example from a personal reflection on a man I dated briefly, but liked very much:

He really likes Pokemon. I mean, I thought I really liked Pokemon, and the general aesthetic and lore around the first generation or two but he is something else. He spends most of his waking hours thinking about Pokemon. Draws Pokemon. Has a 3DS game with his combat team, some of which have followed him across multiple generations of the games. When he found out my favorite Pokemon is Chansey (and that I’m warming to Blissey) he exclaimed “THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE.”

A week later he gave me a gift of a drawing of a Chansey with open arms ready for a hug.

I never thought I’d get tired of talking about Pokemon, but I’m starting to find the discussions inane and childish. I just keep thinking, if this weren’t R that I wouldn’t even talk about this this much. Probably would just not talk to them. I wonder if he knows how boring I find the conversations? I guess my issue isn’t Pokemon as a topic, but how superficial the discussions are? Let’s talk about how horrifying the tales of the ghost Pokemon are, or the implications of religion, or domestication and what makes a Pokemon vs an animal?

ANYTHING but whether Shadow Ball is better than Night Shade. Again. (The answer is no.)

For those wondering, he was bored by those.

*

Thanks, Fluffy!

Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on polyamory and relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

Liked it? Take a second to support Poly.Land on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

You may also like