When we want to equip people for happy family and healthy relationships, we often cultivate skills. We teach communication skills, negotiation skills, organizational skills, etc. Sometimes we even teach emotional management skills such as self-soothing and patience.
The teaching of skills is all well and good, but I think of it as giving the car a good washing. It makes it shiny and clean. But, if the engine is malfunctioning or the transmission has failed, the shininess will not get us far. I see the quality of our hearts as the powertrain that drives healthy relationships.
This perspective is compatible with the recognition that even the most ambitious skills-training programs have had puny impacts. Many have shown no effects! How can that be? Blaine Fowers, a prominent marriage scholar, has argued that skills do not work in the absence of personal strengths such as self-restraint, courage, generosity, justice, and good judgment.
It is mysterious why we ever thought that acting right is primarily a function of knowledge. The assumption behind that belief is that we simply don’t know how to say or do the right thing. I wonder if the problem is deeper, much deeper. Maybe the problem is that we know the right thing to say—the kind, generous, and gracious thing—but we choose not to say it. Why do we refuse to say the words that could bless?
I think that there are two reasons. First, we really don’t understand each other. We think we do—but we are wrong. Second, our strong, innate sense of justice causes us to feel that we must right the wrongs. We should correct each other.
The solution is clear. We all need a change of heart. We all need to be more open to each other and more anxious to bless each other.
The person who has best taught me this truth is my dear wife, Nancy. She does not study the standard relationship skills. She does not read the research journals or even the popular relationship books. But she blesses people because her heart is pure. She is without guile and she has abundant charity.
I believe that most relationship problems are not due to lack of skill. They are due to hard hearts. Our hard hearts prevent us from seeing things as they are. Instead we see things as we are.
At this point in such a discussion, it is common for a person to say, “Wow. You’re so right! My Facebook friends really need this!” I hope I can convince you that we all need this, that to be human is to see through a glass darkly, that we all have giant logs in our eyes that keep us from seeing what God sees.
I would like to give a brief summary of eight well-established biases in human perception. These are not tidy and separate but overlapping and interacting biases. After considering the biases, I want to recommend two remedies that seem consistent with God’s recommendations.
1. Egocentrism keeps us focused on our own needs.
We are not born with an advanced concern for others. In fact, we are born thinking only of our own comfort. Unless we have a change of heart, our own comfort and well-being will continue as the central issues of our individual lives. We will imagine that the sun orbits around us.
There is accumulating research evidence that we have enlarged our narcissism as a society. Yet, in relationships, when we fail to displace core egocentrism with a concern for others, we are not good friends and citizens.
2. The fundamental attribution bias causes us to view others less favorably than ourselves.
This bias is the tendency to excuse our errors and faults because of our circumstances while blaming others’ misdeeds on character defects. When I cut in front of someone in traffic, it is due to the many demands on my time. When someone else does the same thing, we judge that person to be rude and selfish.
This bias is not surprising; we know more about our own circumstances than about other’s circumstances. Yet the bias can keep us showing compassion for ourselves while condemning others for the very same kinds of humanness. We can buck this bias and assume good faith. We can assume that people do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. When their actions don’t make sense to us, we can try to get into their point of view.
3. The myth of pure evil causes us to polarize.
This human quirk causes us to exaggerate differences between groups, giving the “us-es” too much credit and the “thems” too little credit. Jonathan Haidt, the insightful psychologist, observed: “We all commit selfish and shortsighted acts, but our inner lawyer ensures that we do not blame ourselves or our allies for them. We are thus convinced of our own virtue, but quick to see bias, greed, and duplicity in others. We are often correct about others’ motives, but as any conflict escalates, we begin to exaggerate grossly, we weave a story in which pure virtue (our side) is in battle with pure vice (theirs). (2006, p. 73)
Psychologists have observed that the myth of pure evil helps us feel justified when we treat other people badly. “After all, they deserve it!” Such ends-justify-means thinking flies in the face of Jesus counsel to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (Matthew 5:44).
Many of us invoke the myth of pure evil in politics, race relations, history, and religion. We even fall into the trap in family relations, vilifying any family member with whom we are at odds. This tendency in human relations may cause more tears to be shed in heaven than almost any other tendency. We judge and hurt each other while feeling noble.
4. Naïve realism makes us smug in our assessments.
Jonathan Haidt described “naïve realism”: “Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies. The background of other people is used to explain their biases. It just seems plain as day, to the naïve realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.”
Again, our natural-man wiring puts us at odds with God and our fellowmen. To compound our sin, we think we are the only ones who are right. Consider the mischief this tendency has caused in families, communities, and nations since the days of Adam.
Oddly, the problem is exacerbated when we have a lively sense of idealism. We feel that we are advancing a noble cause even as we violate the command to love one another.
5. Gut often hijacks Head and causes irrational decisions.
Each of us has gut reactions in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, this same wiring often causes us to react to people and situations without taking counsel from compassion or good sense. We may instinctively dislike a person and then we go to work to justify our devious decision.
In family life, this tyranny by the gut can result in snap decisions that can damage relationships. We can see our friends as enemies when it is really Satan and a fallen world that are the enemies. Being ruled by our guts can also cause us to live by fear.
6. Confirmation bias causes us to be narrow and selective in our perceiving and processing.
Daniel Gardner has described confirmation bias: “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that supports that view while ignoring, rejecting or harshly scrutinizing information that cast doubt on it. (2008, p. 110)
When we have decided to judge some person or position, we often gather like-minded people around us to buttress our narrow view. As we do, our views become more and more narrow and rigid. We develop hardening of the categories.
Confirmation bias can keep us from a growing, enlarged, and more balanced view. When we have the humility to listen to our opponents, we grow!
7. Our unreliable memories shape our perception of the world to fit our objectives.
We shape, prune, and edit our memories far more than we realize. That is one reason there are so many arguments at family reunions. Each of us has our own version of history—and we are sure we are right. We are quite unaware of the liberties we have taken with truth. We systematically shape memories in order to support the narrative we favor. (My view is that ONLY God knows truth fully. Fortunately, He chooses to see truth through the lens of redemptiveness.)
Two psychologists have insightfully observed that “between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self justification to fool ourselves lies a fascinating gray area, patrolled by that unreliable, self-serving historian—memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened. Over time, as the self-serving distortions of memory kick in and we forget or distort past events, we may come to believe our own lies, little by little” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 6).
In irritating relationships, we train ourselves to look for bad things. Of course, this sets up self-fulfilling prophecies. There is enough bad in the best of people that we will certainly find it if we’re looking for it.
One of the most remarkable discoveries of psychology is that we can also do the opposite. When we look for good, we find it. This is what healthy partners do. Psychologists call it wearing rose-colored glasses. God calls it charity.
We are active creators in relationships. We create the image and supporting narrative of a great friend or an ignorant one, of good-hearted neighbors or crazy ones, of earnest family members or defective ones.
8. Anger narrows and blinds us.
Research shows that when we get angry, we find it almost impossible to empathize with and understand the people who irritate us. God forbids anger because it is so destructive in relationships (3 Nephi 12:22). When we are angry, we stop trying to solve problems and start trying to hurt people. Anger can block sensible thinking, serious problem-solving, and loving connection.
I hope you are convinced that all of us are biased perceivers and processors. We do indeed see through dark glass if we see at all.
This realization can make us gloomy and desperate. Or it can send us to God for repairs of our humanness. Only He can change our hearts. We can polish the exterior but only the heavenly mechanic can fix the power trains in humans.
You might well ask, but how do we train hearts? How do we get ourselves to His shop for repairs? What are the keys to changing our hearts? I believe that humility and compassion are the tools to transcend our biases and get us the mind of Christ. When we are humble, we actively seek to understand others and their viewpoints. When we are compassionate, we look for the good in others.
Humility and compassion are vital in all relationships. They change families. And they enable people of different political and religious persuasions to understand each other.
If you are interested in learning more about applying humility, compassion, and positivity to strengthening relationships, see the free publication, Getting Our Hearts Right: Three Keys to Better Relationships at https://www.uaex.edu/life-skills-wellness/personal-family-well-being/personal/getting-hearts-right.aspx
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This is a revision of an article I wrote for Meridian Magazine in 2010.