How the Color Purple is Harming Your Relationships

Comments 21

Pop quiz: If your relationship problems are decreasing mathematically and your romantic partner is observably adjusting his or her behavior in an honest attempt to connect with you emotionally, but your brain and subsequent emotions are telling you otherwise, is your relationship actually improving?

But Matt! What a silly question! If my partner were lovingly changing their behavior for my benefit and the benefit of our relationship, my mind and heart would NEVER tell me otherwise!

Awww. It’s cute because I would have totally said that too before learning about the Blue Dot Effect.

It occurred to me only after learning about the Blue Dot Effect that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether there is objective, measurable improvement. Our brains will sometimes invent new negatives to replace the ones that went away.

Simply put: Even though the world is measurably the best it’s ever been (longest life expectancy, best health care, most material wealth, most educated, most freedoms, most mobile, most access to information in human history), everyone feels shitty and complains to each other about it on social media when they’re not too busy bragging about the awesome new thing they just acquired or did to earn street cred with all of the people they went to high school with.

It’s largely the premise of Mark Manson’s new book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. (It’s good.) Manson is among my favorite writers because he tries to do what I try to do, only more effectively and his focus extends beyond romantic relationships.

What is the Blue Dot Effect?

It was Manson’s book which introduced me to the Blue Dot Effect, but writer Sam Brinson had written about it a year ago not long after a group of scientists published their findings on “Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment” in the June 19, 2018 issue of Science.

The conclusion of the study was simple: When humans are on the lookout for something, like bad behavior or threats, when instances of that bad behavior or those threats lessen, people will expand their definition of “bad behavior” or “threats” to include things they wouldn’t have previously.

From Brinson’s Medium article “The Psychology of Finding What You’re Looking For”:

“The researchers ran several experiments, most of which involved participants identifying blue dots from a series that ranged in color from ‘very blue’ to ‘very purple.’ After some time, the number of blue dots would reduce, and the participants would react by selecting as blue dots those they had previously considered purple — their category of ‘blue’ expanded as the number of examples of blue decreased.”

Brinson continues:

“In further experiments, the researchers found the same effect when participants had to identify aggressive faces from a group that ranged from ‘very threatening’ to ‘not very threatening,’ and again when separating unethical research proposals from ethical ones.

“When increasing the number of blue dots instead of reducing them, the effect reverses — what had previously counted as blue suddenly gets left out. What’s more, the researchers also found the effect to occur when people were told they were doing it, and even when those people were paid to not fall into the trap.”

Important note, Brinson points out:

“This experiment seems to prove that we are incapable of making our concepts rigid, and must give in to ebbing and flowing. It should be noted, however, that this effect occurred when people were looking for instances of the concept — the blue category expanded as people sought to find blue dots, neutral faces became threatening when people were on a mission to find threatening faces.

“People in normal circumstances, who aren’t actively looking to label certain things, might not be as susceptible to the same concept shifts. If I remain indifferent to acts of aggression and acts of kindness, even if the frequency of either act changes, will I be more likely to recognize that change or to alter my definition?”

What This Means for Your Relationships

What this means is, if you’ve identified a pattern of behavior in your relationship partner that you don’t like—like a wife who feels disrespected and unloved because of an incomplete house chore or display of forgetfulness from her husband; or like a husband who feels disrespected and unloved because he perceives EVERY attempt by his wife to communicate with him about her feelings as an unprovoked and unfair attack on his character—you’re likely to find instances of your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend doing the same old bullshit things they always did even if they are legitimately doing things ‘better’ per previous conversations and agreements between the two of you.

And it’s not always because your partner is a huge, selfish asshole who will never change.

Sometimes, it’s simply because things you used to be cool with are now things you’ve labeled unacceptable. Things that were once benign are now painful. Things that were once just humans being humans are now relationship killers.

This tendency to find negatives even when things are improving around us is NOT a weapon for narcissists to wield in another mind-game argument where they invalidate their partner’s expressed feelings and try to convince them that the things they think and feel aren’t real.

It’s merely another opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth. An opportunity to check your own biases and bullshit at the door.

Human behavior is messy. Human emotion and mental health is messy.

It’s HARD to be an adult.

And that’s why finding someone to walk side-by-side with for the rest of our lives is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes we need to be lifted up. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re not the only ones who are afraid or unsure of what to do next. Sometimes we need to be forgiven.

The people who promised to love us, and who we promised to love in return, deserve our best. They deserve our most generous thoughts and assumptions. They deserve our most humble and compassionate responses. They deserve our focus and energy and effort to remind them that we’ve got their back.

That they are respected, appreciated, and cherished.

That they are good enough, honored, and supported.

Sometimes, they show up as purple dots and we should lovingly and compassionately remind them they’re kind of being dicks when they do.

Other times, the people who promised to love us forever are showing up as blue dots, and because we are imperfect creatures, we think that dot is purple. We’re LOOKING FOR purple. And we treat those purple-dotting sonsofbitches accordingly.

But really, that dot is blue. Our person showed up just as they’d promised. It feels like they failed us, but really we’re failing them.

And we don’t have to.

We can do better.

We must.

21 thoughts on “How the Color Purple is Harming Your Relationships”

  1. Great essay ! I hadn’t heard of the Blue Dot effect, so thanks for explaining it. And it makes perfect sense.
    Living with someone is very hard, and it is so easy to be annoyed about things. I know my husband has been consciously trying to not be as critical. And it is still easy for me to get angry when he is critical — even though he must be making 75% less of those critical comments.
    I’m going to keep this in mind.

    1. I love it. Thank you for reading this with an open mind and being willing to apply it to your relationship. Grateful for that.

  2. Matt,

    It does not appear that the “concept shift” described was limited to something negative (e.g. the color blue is not inherently negative), but was instead always applicable to a defined target. That is, you see more of what you expect to see. Consequently, I would think this “concept shift” would also apply to finding positive behaviors. For example, I have heard that cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” results in a person being happier.

    So, I think this study could also be used to promote looking for the good in others. Is that contrary to the study or to Manson’s interpretation of it?

    And, if a positive spin is valid, then it would suggest that counseling in that direction would be helpful. In fact, it might well be an improvement. After all, if I say “Don’t think about tigers”, your first thought is probably about tigers. In the same fashion, if I say “Don’t think about your spouse’s bad behavior”, your first thought is probably about some of their bad behavior.

    1. Valid.

      And the positive yin to the negative yang.

      I was merely thinking about it in terms of relationship conflict. My assumption is that people who always see the good in one another never find themselves reading this blog. 🙂

      But I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t HAVE to be a negative thing.

      I just latched onto that idea because it seemed relevant to many of the conversations we have around here.

    2. Okrickety,

      Yes, you are right the concept is useful for increasing positivity.

      I took a DBT class where the daily homework was to notice particular positive things your spouse did and to text them to acknowledge and appreciate the positive things they did. It did make a difference because I had to FOCUS on positive things.

      It was amazing how just this little daily adjustment increased the positives I noticed and how much positivity giving and receiving appreciation added deposits to the “love bank.”

      I still try to use this as a daily habit.

      As you said it is similar to research on gratitude exercises that increase happiness levels.

      Gottman has a similar concept in relationships to develop the habit of noticing positives and communicating your appreciation to your spouse as part of increasing the relationship’s positive sentiment override.

      There is too much information flooding us to take it all in. What we select for attention is by necessity selective.

      What we choose to focus to on often creates very different conclusions of what is “true.”

  3. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what color the dots are…in the big picture valuable relationships are just that…valuable. So you ask yourself “is my ego worth the price of happiness?” Then there is the concept of being “accepting” of your partners behaviors. The more accepting and giving you are the stronger you become. Your life becomes a mirror image of what ever vibe you give off. If you think of your relationship in terms of “service” to the other win. Once you realize that you become whatever your dominant thoughts are…you become very careful about the things you think about on a day to day basis.

    Took me some time to figure that out. But it’s true. If you start each day thinking about how valuable your relationship is…very soon your behavior will shift to the positive. Add some kindness, empathy and selflessness and your life will improve dramatically.

    Soon you will see the error of your former ways. Thanks Matt.

    1. MRB,
      “Your life becomes a mirror image of what ever vibe you give off.”

      Yes. And so does the life of our partner become an image of whatever vibe they give off. A relationship doesn’t include only the dynamics of one person.
      It is true that one person often can turn a relationship worse, but most often it takes (at least) two people to make and keep a relationship healthy.

  4. cindy varenkamp

    GREAT article!
    Your conclusion about human relationships and how we should support each other and lift each other up resonated with me.
    I often let what I think is purple behavior slide and wonder whether I’m doing the right thing or if should I speak up and call it out.
    In the short run, it’s tempting to feel like a doormat, but in the long run, the positives of doing this have greatly outweighed the negatives.
    You’re on to something here.
    Thanks for your insight.

  5. Matt said “Somes we need to be forgiven”..And sometimes we need to forgive. It seems to me that when we start calling purple dots blue it’s because there is some unresolved hurt. We haven’t forgiven past issues, so we keep calling foul. We’re still looking for issues because the issue from 18 months ago still hasn’t been resolved (at least not emotionally.)

    It makes me think about why we hold to anger. And sometimes it feels empowering. As though that’s the only power or control we have in the relationship.
    This is where believing in the best about your partner comes in. (Ecspecially in the face of measurable change.)
    It’s true also that this holding on to anger could come from old childhood issues.

    1. Step 1. We must deal with our own shit, by being aware of it, and accounting for it’s role in all the bullshit we come up against in our relationships.

      Step 2. Make the focus—the goal—of any conversation about relationship conflict to increase connection.

      Instead of trying to win debate points, or defend oneself, try instead to make the conversation ENTIRELY about walking away closer to your partner than when you started.

      I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately.

      One wonders why this isn’t more of a thing.

  6. Appreciated the intended context of this exposé on our biases. Very refreshing and helpful, aside from providing factual leverage to validate personal confidence in confrontation with detractors of one’s personal character.

  7. Basically, if you want to be mad/sad you will always find a reason for it. Sometimes people are predisposed to be this way; other times they simply won’t admit that they made a very bad decision when they married a particular person, so they get upset and stay upset with them so the decision will be made for them. The spouse leaves or tells them to get out. Then they can play the victim.

    “I did everything for spouse, but s/he left me anyway!”

  8. jeffmustbeleast

    Great article Matt. It is amazing how often this happens in every relationship. I’m quick to realize when my wife is assuming a negative that doesn’t exist, but I’m sure I do the same thing myself. Need to work hard on focusing on the positives.

    OkRickety brought up a very good point. I do think it is possible to focus on the positives. This can be taken to an extreme where you are naive; but in general, if your spouse really does care about you and has your best interests at heart, trying to focus on the positive is critical. If a wife (or husband) starts to question whether their spouse has their best interests at heart, I would imagine focusing on the positives can seem dangerous and naive. Just goes to show how important it is to demonstrate to your spouse that you have their back.

  9. Pingback: 321. Perception is Reality | Domestic Discipline, Jenny style!

  10. I am stunned to finally (in the vast endless sea of relationship articles online) a fresh perspective on the issue of miscommunication in marriage. I have said to myself, my husband and others so many times, why are you so upset. I work so hard to bring up areas of attention, so matter of fact-ly, clearly, removing all traces of anger, negativity or criticism and was never able to understand why he would almost immediately feel so attacked. I recall saying (more than once). My god, if this is how you respond to a reasonable concern, maybe I should just scream and swear because the resulting downward spiral of defensiveness i receive is unfathomable. This research gives me pause, that seems akin to relationship PTSD (because we certainly have had some arguments that were real douzy’s In the past, but have worked hard to avoid that recently) is this a cycle that cannot be changed? Could you please give me advice from any perspective (scientific, emotional) etc. on how you get off this crazy merry-go-round. Because honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m getting gas-lit or going crazy because of the amount of negativity I receive from my husband from such reasonable requests or concerns. You have to identify a problem before it can be solved, I truly think this is my relationships problem! So what can be done now to un-learn this problem behavior and what can I do (if anything) to avoid triggering it in my husband. Your the Best Matt, Dana

    1. I just, literally, published my first article in weeks, and it was more or less about this very thing. Thank you so much, Dana.

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Matt Fray

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