7 Cognitive Biases to Avoid to Break Free from Narcissistic Abuse

By Kim Saeed | Contemplating No Contact

Jul 23
Cognitive Biases Narcissism

It’s no secret that being in a relationship with a character disturbed individual affects one’s ability to think clearly and rationally.

When you’re dealing with gaslighting, blame-shifting, and narcissistic brainwashing, it’s fairly common to lose the capacity for logical thought mere weeks after involvement with someone who’s bent on bamboozling you.

But when you add cognitive biases to the mix, it’s no surprise that analyzing and leaving an emotionally abusive relationship can prove difficult. Although cognitive biases help us in some ways, they have many drawbacks.  They lead to poor choices, bad judgments, and flawed insights.

Cognitive Biases Explained

A cognitive bias is defined as a pattern of thinking that deviates from rationality in judgment. Inferences about other people and situations are woven in an illogical fashion, and individuals often create their own “subjective reality” from their respective perceptions.[1]

Put simply: A gap in between how we should think and how we do think.  In other words, making irrational judgments by assessing a person or event in an erroneous way.

Below are seven cognitive biases that targets of narcissistic abuse frequently engage in – often without even knowing it – and how to manage these biases in order to make educated decisions about your relationship and your future.

1 – Ambiguity Effect

When faced with choosing between two options, sometimes people have a good understanding of the probability of something happening while other times the situation is ambiguous…that is, the probability of the event is unknown. In such situations, people are more likely to choose the former situation, preferring a known probability over an unknown probability.

Example:  I know my partner has cheated several times, but I might not be able to find anyone who is faithful since commitment is so hard to find.  I may as well stay with my current partner because at least I know their patterns and feel I can handle any setbacks that arise.

How to manage the Ambiguity Effect:  While finding a partner who is entirely faithful isn’t guaranteed, the probability of finding someone who would be loyal in a relationship is much higher than people sometimes give credit to.  Further, creating a list of relationship deal breakers would improve one’s chances of finding a rewarding relationship in the future. 

2 – Informational Cascade

The more people that believe in something the more powerful it becomes and the more likely other people will come to believe it.

Example:  There is a new faux theory floating around that Empaths are narcissists.

How to manage Informational Cascade: In this example, it’s important to consider the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, which includes these features [2]:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating one’s achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • A person believing they are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with one’s expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

While there are no entries in the DSM-5 for being empathic, it is widely understood that Empaths are the exact opposite of narcissists.  According to Dr. Judith Orloff:

Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they’re there for you, world-class nurturers[3]

It’s important to note that the chief similarity between empaths and narcissists is childhood wounding.  However, there exists the possibility that narcissists were either born that way or had parents who overpraised them.  Either way, their lack of empathy puts them in a different category than Empaths.

3 – Confirmation Bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Examples:  1) Believing the narcissist is a hurt individual who needs your undying love, compassion, and understanding.  Consequently, you may search for information that confirms this belief, 2) Believing your situation is somehow unique and different from everyone else’s…that the manipulator in your life is truly capable of change.  Accordingly, you may follow sites or writers whose stance is that narcissists have the potential to change, although the manipulator in your life has given you no reason to believe this.

How to manage Confirmation Bias:  Unexpected or worrisome information is viewed as a threat, which leads people to restrict information processing. Confirmation bias causes people to prioritize information that supports what they already think.  One way to overcome confirmation bias when considering leaving an abusive relationship is to pay attention to a person’s actions instead of their words.  Keep journals and diaries if you need to.

4 – Reactance

The urge to do the opposite of what someone suggests out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.  Reactance can cause a person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended and increases resistance to persuasion.

Example:  Insisting on attending a social event when you know for certain your toxic ex will be there – ignoring the advice from experts who tell you it’s not a good idea – because you feel it violates your freedom of choice.

How to manage Reactance:  In this case, there’s a reason experts are recommending that you not attend a social event when a toxic ex will be there.  Typically, this advice originates from the expert’s personal experience and/or working with clients.  Hence, it’s important to realize that no one is trying to take away your personal liberties, but instead, has well-meaning reasons for recommending that you not go.  When it comes to overcoming Reactance, try to control your ego’s impulse to do the opposite of what is being proposed and, instead, explore reasons why the advice is beneficial. 

5 – The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Refusing to abandon something unrewarding because you’ve already invested in it.

Example: “I might as well stay in this bad relationship because I’ve already invested so much in it.”

How to manage Sunk Cost bias:  If you’ve invested years of your time, thousands of your hard-earned dollars, and made numerous sacrifices in the name of your relationship, you might as well hang in there, right?

Not if you’re the target of emotional abuse and manipulation. If you don’t feel you are getting anything out of it except disrespect and heartache, it’s time to leave. Write off the money and the time you spent, and save yourself from more exploitation. Remember to separate your emotional investment from the decision you’re making, and know when to cut your losses.

6 – Optimism Bias (Also wishful thinking, positive outcome bias)

A cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others.[4]

Examples: 1) Believing your toxic partner is somehow different from other toxic individuals, although they meet most or all of the criteria of narcissism or another form of pathology, 2) Believing you are immune from the effects of narcissistic abuse, even though you may already be experiencing some or all of the symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, 3) Continuing to believe your partner will finally do the right thing when they consistently do all the wrong things.

How to manage Optimism Bias:  Optimism is not always a bad thing.  People have achieved many great things by maintaining high levels of optimism.  However, if you’re the target of psychological abuse and manipulation, maintaining high levels of optimism can prove dangerous, even fatal.  There’s a critical difference between trying to maintain healthy levels of optimism and ignoring red flags.

7 – Fading Affect Bias

A bias in which the emotion associated with unpleasant memories fades more quickly than the emotion associated with positive events.

Example:  Forgetting how horrible an emotional abuser has been to you, and instead focusing on the perceived good times as a reason to stay in a toxic relationship.

How to manage Fading Affect Bias:  In the context of being the target of narcissistic abuse, remembering the so-called good times while placing less focus on or “forgetting” abusive episodes is common.  Abuse victims often make the statement, “I can barely remember all the bad things they’ve done to me because the good times are so uncommonly good”.   If this sounds like your situation, keeping a journal would be an effective way of managing Fading Affect Bias.

While Fading Affect Bias is a genuine cognitive distortion, forgetting abuse could be the result of repressed memories, which are memories that have been unconsciously blocked due to high levels of stress or trauma.  If you’re enduring things that would cause you to be concerned for a friend or loved one if they were suffering the same things, you might be experiencing repressed memories of trauma.

Overcoming cognitive biases is a hard road: biases are part of who we are. But as much as possible, we can systematically take note of our own normal reactions to things or the decisions we make and analyze them (or enlist others to help us analyze them) for bias.

These are just some of the ideas for managing bias in order to leave an abusive relationship. Bias affects all of us, but with the right methods in place, we can learn to counteract its effects.

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[1] Cognitive bias. (2017, July 15). Retrieved July 20, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias
[2] Narcissistic personality disorder: Overcoming your extreme esteem. (2014, November 18). Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20025568
[3] Dr Judith Orloffs Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2017, from http://www.drjudithorloff.com/_blog/Dr_Judith_Orloffs_Blog/post/How_to_Know_if_Youre_an_Empath
[4] Optimism bias. (2017, July 22). Retrieved July 23, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_bias
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About the Author

Kim Saeed is a narcissistic abuse recovery expert on a mission to help abuse survivors to heal, find purpose, and live joyfully after No Contact. She also hosts a podcast called Heal, Grow, Evolve, where she aims to help people create meaningful lives and relationships after emotional abuse. Listen and subscribe at www.healgrowevolvewithkim.com

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(1) comment

ThePinch July 24, 2017

This courageous article obliges me to look deep within myself at what drives my obsession with an abusive human being.

Obviously it’s way beyond cataloging the misadventures of the narcissist/disordered jerk adventures. Taking stock and responsibility for our own behaviour is what I call a “big girl” step. I can see myself in several of the examples.

It would be very easy to construe this article as victim-blaming, but Kim deftly managed to touch on owning it without disgrace.

To recovery! Bravo, Kim.

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