Human Bias in Divorce

By: Mary G. Commander

Everyone has ingrained cognitive bias, including you and me. This is neither good nor bad, but we need to understand how it works, especially in divorce. Since this is written by a lawyer, please do not take this as anything authoritative.

Cognitive bias is what our brains automatically do to filter information based on our personal experience and preferences. It helps us prioritize and process information quickly. Unfortunately, it also can impact our perception so that we frequently do not see things as they really are.

Bias can even affect our memory of people, events, and information. This explains why your memory is often different than your spouse’s. It is common to call the other party a “liar,” but human memory is the least reliable and most biased of all the senses.

We need to be aware of our bias and understand that we need to overcome bias in order to communicate effectively and to make good decisions.

First, there are “bias blind spots.” If thinking wasn’t hard enough, we usually fail to recognize our cognitive bias. We are very good, however, at seeing it in our spouses. The reality is that none of us are immune.

While there are numerous cognitive biases, three are most significant in divorce cases.

  1. Self-Serving Bias

People have a tendency to give themselves credit for successes but blame their failures on outside causes or people.

Examples: “I created this business. It’s all mine. My spouse did nothing to help me.”

“I did everything for this family. Our kids are successful only because of what I did. The spouse did nothing except serve as a bad influence.”

“I lost custody because my lawyer was no good.” (But never “I got custody because my lawyer was so good.”)

  • The Optimism Bias

People have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us while underestimating the probability that negative events will impact their lives.

Examples: “Once the judge hears what my spouse did to me, I will win!”

“My spouse cheated on me, so I am going to get everything. What I did doesn’t matter.”

“The judge can’t give custody to someone else because I am the mother.”

  • Confirmation Bias

People have a tendency to look for/at or overvalue information that confirms our beliefs or expectations.

Examples: “I found a case on Google that will win my case.”

“My friend had the same kind of case so I know my case will come out the same way.”

“My therapist says that my wife is a narcissist.”

Bottom line: Lawyers serve to reality check clients. They tell us things that we don’t want to hear. You need to recognize your cognitive bias, and listen to what your lawyer tells you.

“It is an acknowledged fact that we perceive errors in the work

of others more readily than in our own.”

Leonardo da Vinci