Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Observational Bias

Scientists often discuss the dangers of observational bias in experiments. Researchers look for results that confirm their working hypothesis, and can unconsciously skew data to support their own expectations. Remember the horse who could count? The original researchers wanted the horse to count, so they proved he did. But the horse was picking up on nonverbal cues from his testers rather than actually counting. When he couldn't see the tester, he couldn't do the math.

I think it's a pretty smart horse that can read people that well.

Recently, I've encountered articles in science magazines about how observational bias affects relationships. Take, for instance, housework. Each individual in a house knows exactly what housework he or she has done because s/he can't forget those nasty or tedious acts like sticking gloved hands in dirty toilets and emptying the fridge of science experiments and sorting 163 socks belonging to 4 different people. These tasks loom large in her/his mind. When called on to estimate what percentage of overall housework we do, we will usually over-estimate our own work and under-estimate others' work.

We think we're doing more than we are, and we don't give others credit for the work we don't see them do.

Observational bias plays out in many human interactions. How often have you been the one doing all the work on a team project or committee? I can feel your grumbling through the internet, people. Those lazy sons of guns stood back and let us do all the work, and then they took credit for it. Darn them all to heck!

Of course we feel this way. It's observational bias at work.

I recently had the delightful experience of being on a church committee to put together a photo directory. Ordinarily, such a committee would hardly inspire the adjective "delightful" because everyone in a church wants a photo directory but no one wants to 1) be on the committee to make it happen or 2) schedule themselves for a photo session. Oh the grumbling of a congregation!

But this committee service has been truly delightful because every single woman on the committee felt like she wasn't doing much to get the job done...we all felt that the others were doing more work than we were, and we felt bad about it! It was, indeed, a most refreshing experience, and I credit the chair of the committee for choosing her team so well that observational bias didn't apply.

What a rare and precious treat!

So how do we compensate for observational bias in our personal relationships? How do we fairly and realistically assess what others are doing and acknowledge their contributions in positive ways? How do we keep from feeling like put-upon martyrs being victimized by the indifference, neglect, or lack of appreciation of those for whom we have done so much?

Several ideas come to mind.

First, figure out why you do what you do. Am I ironing George's shirts to get praise and love for being such a dutiful wife, or am I ironing them because I love him and because I have more time at home than he does? If I'm ironing for praise and love, I'll never be able to iron enough. That's a bottomless pit of neediness I firmly reject. If I'm ironing as an expression of love, what's there to feel victimized by or resentful of? Be aware of the reasons you do things, and you'll understand better why those things are or are not satisfying.

Second, ask if you're really doing as much as you think you are. When was the last time I ironed George's shirts? Well, shucks. There's a whole pile of them sitting, neglected, on the closet shelf. I'm falling down on the job here! Don't we all? When you consider what you're really doing, you might find it's not so much after all.

Third, evaluate your expectations of others. Expectation is the mother of disappointment. Are you expecting too much from other people? During years of military moves, I was hurt by the fact that so few friends and family members bothered to write or call after I moved away. I wrote them letters, called back when long-distance calls were expensive, and sent Christmas cards. They rarely wrote, rarely called, and usually cut me from their Christmas card lists after just a year or two.

Eventually, it occurred to me that these people had not stopped loving me...they were just living their lives. If observational bias exaggerates the busyness and importance of our own lives, it also significantly minimizes our understanding and appreciation of how busy and important other people's lives are.

But seriously? Other people are--generally speaking--working hard, making choices, planning for their futures, enjoying life on their own terms. We expect this right to pursue happiness for ourselves, so why do we have such a hard time accepting that other people might simply be exercising the same right?

My long-distance friends and family were focusing on the people in front of them, their children and husbands and parents and coworkers and local friends. Their "neglect" of our friendship wasn't personal. It was a necessary fact of separation in the modern, mobile world.

So I erased my expectations and accepted that others live their lives as busily and actively as I live mine...and I stopped taking it personally. Needless to say, I'm a lot happier for my change of attitude.

About the time I came to this healthy and reasonable conclusion, Facebook exploded onto the internet scene. As annoying and strange as it can be, Facebook enabled me to reconnect with some old friends in lovely, easy ways. I miss the ones whom I can't find on Facebook, but really, both my life and my Facebook feed are quite full and busy enough.

If you're like I used to be...sitting around feeling hurt because others aren't giving you a higher priority in their lives...ask yourself what you're giving to the relationship and if it's realistic to expect more from others than they are already giving. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine all they must be dealing with. Consider how observational bias might be skewing your perspective.

And then, if it is the healthy and reasonable thing to do, change your attitude and expectations. You'll be happier for it.


Of course, you might find, upon honest examination, that you are indeed being treated unfairly or taken advantage of. Then, well, you have two positive choices: 1) open the lines of communication, assertively state your feelings, establish healthy boundaries, and see what happens, or 2) let it go.

Feel free to burst into song here. Let it go, let it go....

And now I'm off to iron some shirts. That's the least I can do for my honey-bunny who works forty hours a week so I can eat bon-bons and read novels all day long. Thank you, my dear.


  1. All so true! My life changed dramatically when I thought more deeply about my motivations and expectations. I'm much happier now. I'm a bit worried about the quote that says that people notice when I don't do the housework... I can't keep up with the housework! My house is a disaster zone all the time. Luckily for me, I have quite a few friends in the same boat - busy lives working, being parents, and SOMETIMES doing some housework, lol! ;-)

  2. Thank you for the wonderful post and putting into words what runs around in my brain too!
    I kept a clean house and cooked for my family becasue it was a choice I made when we decided to have children. Taking my children to and from all their activivtes was part of me being their parent. I even designed the house so it was easy to clean. Now that I'm single again and living in a small studio with only my dog Annie, I find it harder to keep clean. Can't leave anything out since there is no extra space for anything.

  3. Observational Bias. Well, I see it working every day at my job. Never had a clue that it was an actual psychology at work. Hmph. It definitely has varying degrees and it's pretty amazing that those who have it bad; have it really bad.

    I do know it's something I've had to apply to my relationship with my husband. It's hard to equate cutting grass once a week with cooking dinner every night. But, if I stand back and look at the big picture; I think we are about equal in effort. I do love it when he surprises me with some tasks I expected to have to complete.

    As for the comment about housework; I've realized over the last few years that someting similar to this goes on at my Dr's office. (Two different doctors.) They are always VERY quick to comment when I put on a few pounds; but when I lose twenty! nobody notices. This irks me. I am going to point it out the next time it happens. LOL

  4. Ahhh Susan---this exceptional information and advice. Book worthy imo. I come over to your blog here every now and then, from your craft blog. So glad I did today. Everyone needs to read this post. You are a wise woman.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!