If you’ve ever taken an economics course, you’d recall that basic economics is founded on the assumption that an individual is a fundamentally rational creature. This infallible being, homo economicus, when in possession of complete and accurate information, always chooses the option that maximizes their well-being.

Of course, we all know that this is a flagrantly inaccurate assumption – people constantly act against their objective rational self-interest.

In the 1970s, Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman studied and catalogued some of these irrationalties. Through meticulous and often creative experimentation, they found patterns in the way that we are sometimes at odds with rationality. Tversky and Kahneman’s research spawned a new field called behavioral economics to study these predictable irrationalities. Thus far, behavioral economists have identified over 100 of these persistent mental errors – called cognitive biases – that distort our decision-making.

Below are some cognitive biases that are particular problematic for relationships.

  • The Zeigarnik effect is a cognitive bias in which people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. This was discovered in the 1920s when psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters in a café were able to remember orders and keep tabs on unpaid meals, but once the orders were filled and paid for, the waiters were unable to recall detailed information. The completion of a task can lead to it being forgotten and incomplete tasks helped to ensure the waiter remembered their order.

    While the Zeigarnik Effect can be very helpful in many instances, it can be problematic for relationships. When couples argue and issues are left unresolved, they are more likely to recall and relive these moments than if they were hashed out. The frustration and hurt remain available and can play out over and over again in our minds. Arguments that end with compromise, understanding and amends are soon forgotten or at least won’t be reoccurring in our minds. The Zeigarnik Effect also gives some scientific reason as to why break ups can be difficult to get over. Unfinished business with an ex will may cause us to obsess over the past relationship.

  • The negativity bias postulates that “things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.” In almost any interaction, we are more likely to not just notice negative things, but also to later remember them more vividly and dwell on them more. For example, you might be having a engaging, enjoyable first date when she makes an offhand comment that rubs you the wrong way. You then find yourself stewing over her words for the rest of the evening. The following day, when someone asks you how your date went, you reply that it was terrible -— even though it was wonderful save for one incident.

  • The availability heuristic, is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.

  • Recency bias is a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones. A memory bias, recency bias gives greater importance to the most recent event.

  • Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Once we have formed an opinion on an issue it can be hard to perceive it in an unbiased manner. Confirmation bias impacts how we gather information, but it also influences how we interpret and recall information. For example, if one believes that left-handed people are more creative, they will only search for artists who are left-handed. They will remember the one person they knew who was left-handed and zone in on a detail of how the person could have been creative.

    We have difficulty seeing things rationally especially when emotions are involved. This can be a problem within relationships. After an argument we may view our partner as being unfair. Each time a disagreement occurs we may look for all the evidence that proves the partner is unfair. Over time, this builds and eventually are convinced that the partner is overall an unfair person. We may have ignored all the instances that would have proved otherwise.

  • Attribution bias – In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. This effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”,[1] that is, to overattribute their behaviors (what they do or say) to their personality and underattribute them to the situation or context.

  • False consensus effect – In psychology, the false consensus effect, also known as consensus bias, is a pervasive cognitive bias that causes people to “see their own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances”. In other words, they assume that their personal qualities, characteristics, beliefs, and actions are relatively widespread through the general population.

Being aware of these cognitive biases is a good first step, but it’s not enough to keep us from falling victim to them repeatedly. To make things even more challenging, it’s often easier to recognize these systematic mental errors in others than it is to see them in ourselves (an example of attribution bias in action!). Putting in place systems like a weekly state of the union and having a strong support network – including professional therapists – can go a long way towards helping us short-circuit some of these mental traps. While we may never quite be “homo economicus”, we can set ourselves up to make better decisions about our relationships, more of the time.