Love in Mind: Cognitive Trickery

World literature is teeming with stories of unrequited love. Men and women fall in love and are not loved in return. Or love is mutual and wonderful, and then it fades for just one. Love deepens or dies unpredictably, and far too many lovers end up valuing and caring for someone who simply does not care for and value them in return. There is no literary theme more compelling, or sadder.

This is true of life as well. Love only works when it is balanced, two-way. Indeed, the need for responsiveness is so powerful that lovers often distort reality in order to validate the emotional response they need and desire.

At least that’s the theory offered by psychological scientist Edward Lemay of the University of Maryland, who has been studying what he calls “motivational distortion” in relationships. According to Lemay, our desire to bond to another person in a close, committed relationship is so strong that it can bias our thinking–distorting attention and memory and interpretation so that we see and believe what we want to be true. At the first International Convention of Psychological Science, last week in Amsterdam, Lemay discussed his and others’ work on this powerful cognitive bias.

Many studies support the basic idea, suggesting such a biased perception of responsiveness in partners. For example, studies demonstrate that, when one partner cares for and supports the other, he or she tends to believe that these feelings are reciprocated–regardless of whether they are or not. Other studies have shown that, when a loving and caring partner in a couple has a personal problem, he or she sees the other as supportive. This is true even when objective observers see no evidence of emotional support.

Other studies have examined the specific cognitive processes that we use to distort our beliefs about our partners. —> Read More