SZ Connect: Helping Community Singles Split the Sea

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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

It is customary to study Pirkei Avotin the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Where can we better find lessons for life and regarding our relationships! One well-known verse of wisdom – dan kol adam le chaf zechut– advises us to judge everyone favorably and give them the benefit of the doubt. We know advice from our sages is deeply rooted in an understanding of human nature, and while this seems like an obvious approach that is beneficial to relationships, many of us have a tendency to judge. Last month we discussed the tendency we have to judge ourselves unfavorably, which is equally unadvisable. So why do so many of us have difficulty not judging ourselves and others negatively? What exactly is at play here?

Social psychologists have discovered the human tendencies that complicate our ability to adhere to this dictum, and have named them “confirmation bias” and “negativity bias.” Confirmation bias is our tendency to selectively pursue and believe facts that “prove” what we already suspect orbelieve to be true. Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view, while ignoring or rejecting information that casts doubt on that view, and we may become prisoners of our own assumptions.

But why, you may ask, do we look forevidence to prove our negative assumptions? Wouldn’t we want to find evidence that allows us to give the benefit of the doubt and feel good about our relationships? This becomes difficult because of negativity bias, the name given by social psychologists to the human tendency to be much more likely to be influenced by and to recall negative experiences, rather than neutral or positive experiences. We remember insults more than we remember praise. When our mind wanders it’s more likely to recall something that made us angry or upset, instead of recalling something that made us happy and filled with pride.

Left unchecked, confirmation bias and negativity bias can become serious impediments to our happiness and quality of life. Examining every interaction through the lens of negativity bias leaves us feeling cautious, judged, and alone. When we find ourselves unintentionally judging our partners, we don't feel as close or connected to them as we would like. This is because judging creates separation.

So how do we achieve the ability to judge each other favorably, as recommended in Pirkei Avot? Here are some ideas:

Realize that everyone is doing their best– Confirmation bias and negativity bias can make spouses experts at pointing out each other’s failures andflaws. The flaws we see in others may be “spot on” accurate perceptions, and if they would correct that flaw they would relieve much of the stress in their lives. But most flaws are not so easily corrected. Everyone is doing their best based on their lifeexperiences and where they are in their life. Most people would not consciously choose to do their worst. Even though it may not appear to be so, your partner is doing his best. Adopting this mindset and focusing on his/her positive qualities will help open up the space in your mind to accept him/her as they are.


Develop a spirit of we-ness– When people are influenced by confirmation bias and negativity bias, their focus often narrows to who’s right and who’s wrong. A spirit of opposition can develop with each spouse defending their own needs and desires. When you find yourself disagreeing with and judging what your partner says, take a deep breath to become present in the moment and look for the truth in what he's saying. This will help you realize that you simply see things differently and that no one has to be right or wrong.
It also opens up your mind to other ways of looking at things.


Create more Positivity– Because of negativity bias, we must overwhelm our relationships with positive experiences– five positive to every negative. Although most people tend to hold out for the big events – such as a vacation, a birthday bash, or a large purchase – large infrequent events will not be able to balance out your brain’s tilt toward negativity. So scatter simple pleasures throughout your day. Surprise each other with many little gestures of love – think of it as a bank account that will counteract our tendency to judge negatively.

The mandate to judge everyone favorably and give them the benefit of the doubt is our challenge. By becoming aware of our tendencies to judge, and by re-shaping our thinking, we can become more accepting, compassionate, and gentle to ourselves and those we love.