Rational Relationships: Video and Thoughts

I was very lucky to be an invited panelist for FTBCon 3’s panel: “How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationships?” with Wesley Fenza, Miri Mogilevsky and Franklin Veaux.

Wesley did a great job moderating, framing the discussion as a jaunt through several cognitive biases and how they affect our relationships and relationship choices. Enjoy!

Additional thoughts:

  • We talked a lot about how cognitive bias affects our choices to get in or stay in relationships at the beginning, and towards the second half talked more about cognitive bias *in* relationships, but I think you can apply all of them to both. For instance, if you’re trying something new with a partner, especially if it’s an attempt to improve the relationship, it’s easy to be subject to the sunk cost fallacy, where you’ve already tried this thing for so long you might as well keep going. I also like the idea of a partner as someone you can bail out with, where it’s safe to say “this isn’t working, let’s quit”
  • As has been said before (and Miri said in the panel), many of these biases are or can be adaptive in interesting ways.
    • Just as we are happier when we have a slightly inflated sense of our worth or value, I’d imagine we are happier when we let the halo effect work its magic, letting us overlook unimportant flaws in our partners and keeping the relationship on happy ground.
    • If you’ve invested time and effort into a relationship, it’s true that that cost has already been spent, no matter what happens now, but it means that you also have a relationship “for free”, as it were, since you’ve already paid the cost, and that really can be better than investing all of that again. It’s a framing I find helpful – for instance, if you paid 20,000 for the first year of college and you’re deciding where to go, it’s true that that money is gone, but now your choice is between a free year of college or doing something else, which matters.
    • I brought up the idea that the scarcity model vs the abundance model of love might just be an empirical question for some people. Nonconventionally attractive people with unusual kinks or very specific attractions might genuinely have a lot of trouble finding people. But I do want to emphasize that while as a thought experiment that’s true, it’s probably true for a vanishingly small proportion of the population, and Franklin was probably right that a more optimistic approach will, in and of itself lead to better outcomes.
    • I really like thinking of things like this – what are other ways cognitive biases can be adaptive in relationships?

For me the most important takeaways were:

  • The idea of a game-changing relationship that raises the bar for all future ones is both nerdy/rationalist and really heart-warming
  • Not a new idea, but one worth repeating – if you think it would be the worst thing in the world to not be with your current partner, you are probably wrong. You would probably be ok, and everything would probably work out.

Your thoughts? What would you have said if you were on the panel?

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The Caring Less Game

Let’s talk about the Game Where You Pretend You Care Less, explained succinctly by Thought Catalog: “The person who cares less has all the power. Nobody wants to be the one who’s more interested.” Is it just me, or does this game *suck*?

I know, as a long time player, that it doesn’t always feel like a choice, and that not playing can be incredibly painful. But I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to have the sinking feeling that you don’t care for someone quite the way they care for you, and to have that make you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you can’t just be happy. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve this person’s care and affection. And it doesn’t make you feel powerful, unless you’re a special kind of manipulative narcissist. Quite the opposite; when you like someone more than they like you, at least you’re aware and you can decide what to do. Often you don’t wish you liked the other person less; feeling love is it’s own kind of beautiful thing, desirable in its own right.

When it’s the opposite, it’s always felt to me like everything would be better if they just didn’t like me quite so much, and yet I am powerless to make that happen. It feels like it’s my fault that everything is going wrong and that the relationship, romantic or otherwise, is inevitably going to fall apart. Worst of all, I become increasingly uncomfortable just being in their presence, no matter how much I care for them, because the sheer weight of their liking me more than I like them is overwhelming. And that discomfort morphs into pain, which begins to hurt them, and then we are both hurting, and damaged, and why couldn’t I have just liked them more?

Which is all to say that a relationship where there is this kind of asymmetry of feeling isn’t a relationship with unequal power, unless one or more people are using that asymmetry to make power plays, which is a case of abuse, not someone losing the Caring Less Game. It feels like unequal power to the person who feels that they care more, because they are hoping and pining and the other person seems just fine. But that person doesn’t feel thrilled and in control as a result, as you imagine they will from the other side, at least not in my experience. They are just as likely to feel frustrated and unhappy. There’s no winning this Game. No one ever wins.

Which means that the view of relationships as being one where you win the game by caring less is terrible. It undermines our ability to empathize with both sides of a difficult situation, and also normalizes a very unpleasant dynamic. Certainly, there are times when it’s reasonable not to want to overwhelm or scare someone (such as at the beginning of a relationship), or respect their wish for something less emotionally intense, but those are clear exceptions to what sometimes feels like the crushing nonchalance with which this Game is accepted as normal.

Instead of constantly playing the Caring Less Game as if it were the price of admission to a romantic relationship, it might be better if we took it as a bad sign, and looked instead for people who were head over heels for us, and we for them, and no one afraid to say so.

What are other people’s experiences with this dynamic? How has playing or not playing the game affected your relationships?