When a problem arises in experience, frequently there is a clash between our actions and our underlying assumptions.  It is our assumptions about ourselves that we attempt to strengthen or modify to suit the self-image we have.  The term often used to describe this type of phenomenon is called confirmation bias.  Rather than challenge or change our deepest held convictions about ourselves, the tendency is to avoid earnest self-examination in favor of confirming something we think is true about ourselves – even if the assumption is false.  Confirmation bias is an implicit trait which everyone possesses to varying degrees. It is impossible to be completely neutral in all types of situations.  However, there are situations where this phenomenon can be very destructive to ourselves and others.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I encountered a woman who had an image of being fiercely monogamous and priding herself on this attribute who then unexpectantly had an affair.  Consequently, she terminates her previous long-term relationship and invests in the newfound relationship primarily on the premise of ‘feelings of another’.

It would be wise to note that this is not an exposition on morality or infidelity.  It is about how we can manage to convince ourselves of something that doesn’t match the reality of the situation.  Bear that in mind with what follows.

As is the case in many scenarios we sometimes allow our feelings to dictate the direction of our lives.  On these occasions our hearts seem to have more power or influence than our heads.  The intensity of the affair and the associated feelings has enslaved her.  Any semblance of good sense has been thrown out of the window.  In her mind, her actions are justified by the intensity of the experience.  To her, it may seem like she is falling in love – or at least the possibility of love may be unfolding.  Since one of the myths of romantic love is that it is the greatest power of all, she attributes her behavior to being un-expectantly overcome with feelings.

It is difficult for a person to come to grips with the less savory aspects of our being.  We see what we want to see, even when the facts don’t mesh with what we see.  Questioning our most basic intimate assumptions about who we are takes courage. It takes an earnest willingness to explore who we are and what our values are that frequently sees many people falter.

One of the benefits of confirmation bias is that it provides an illusion of certainty.  Rather than rock the ground upon which we walk, its far easier to pretend we are on solid footing.  The woman who had the unexpected affair still believed that she was a faithful person.  She was able to justify this line of reasoning by saying that she was faithful for most of the previous relationship.

According to her, it was the intensity of the affair which had swept her up.  In her mind she did not seem to have much control over the situation.  Her emotions and desires seemed to have overwritten her values.  Confirmation bias often involves a form of double speak as we attempt to justify our actions. We should not be quick to judge, as we all make mistakes at times in our life, but the process of justifying her actions is interesting, I think.

At the time, she believed this was a one-off situation which thus made it easier for her to cling to an identity steeped in being faithful.  There was nothing particularly wrong with her previous relationship, but she did describe it as a bit dull and run of the mill.  Her husband at the time filed for divorce and they separated permanently while she maintained her newfound relationship for several years.   Later she repeated her behavior and began another relationship while still invested in her the relationship.  Two affairs in less than five years saw the breaking of her identity as a faithful partner.  On both occasions the infidelity occurred under similar circumstances and had an intensity of feelings at their core.

To her credit, she began therapy and explored what led her to have affairs when affairs were not consistent with her personal values.  The reasons were many and varied, but chief among them was a dysfunctional relationship with her father.  This relationship impacted her unconscious views on power and control over powerful men.

It wasn’t that she had to view herself as a particularly ‘unfaithful woman’, but she did have to become aware that under the right circumstances, she was capable of infidelity.  She also became more aware of the hurt she caused to others which at first caused her to feel guilt and shame.  Sometimes the price we pay for being more conscious has downsides in the form of suffering.  The way out for her was to develop empathy and compassion for herself and what bought about the unwanted behavior.

Dissolving confirmation bias involves becoming more aware of the things which contribute to the bias in the first place.  Its also good to gather information from various sources (in her case, friends, and therapy) that might clash with long held beliefs.  Importantly, its also essential to take note if the behavior is wanted or unwanted.  For instance, if she intended to have affairs and was fine with it, that’s not an issue for her.  But if she did not want to have affairs, then that is something she should work towards – which she did.  She needed to take stock of her feelings, thoughts, values, and desires and reintegrate them in the way she wanted to be moving forward.  Its during times of stress that we often look towards solutions – to her the solution was an investment in a new relationship.  But more often than not, its more useful to drop below the surface of ourselves and really explore what lays there.