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Naive Realism: who determines what’s right or wrong?

Naive Realism: who determines what’s right or wrong?

American comedian George Carlin said: “First a philosophical question. Have you ever noticed when you are driving that everyone who is driving slower than you is an idiot and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

So when you are in your car, you punch the horn at those who are driving slower than you (the idiots) because they delay you, and scream at all those maniacs driving like crazy, meaning faster than you. According to you, everyone is maniac οr an idiot because there are not going at your speed.

Well, Carlin makes a point there, but before we analyze it further, let’s examine another example.

Joe and Jane are in a new relationship. Joe broke up with his ex-girlfriend recently, a little while before hooking up with Jane, but still keeps some contact with his ex as they are collaborating on a joint project. One day, Helen, Joe’s ex, comments on something he uploaded on Facebook – in a neutral tone, nothing offensive or anything.

Both Joe and Jane see the comment.

What Jane might be thinking: “She commented on his post on Facebook, and his reaction was not cold. What is happening here? He might still want to keep in touch with her. Besides, he even wants to work with her; I really don’t like that. This could be an excuse to keep in touch. Come to think of it, the past couple of days it is like he is keeping something secret. Two hours ago, while we were talking on the phone, he hang up on me suddenly. What’s going on? Should I be worried?”

Now, here’s what Joe might be thinking: “I am so glad Helen is okay after the breakup. No matter what happened between us, I wish her the best and hope she finds someone who makes her as happy as Jane makes me. Plus we have this project going on, and we should really be in good terms since we are working on the same team. It would be a disaster ending our cooperation. Now, I should think about my birthday surprise to Jane. I hope she doesn’t suspect anything; stupid Tom came screaming “birthday present!” the other day while I was talking to Jane on the phone. I hang up super fast, but I’m not sure if she heard something.”

Let’s set aside the whole a-healthy-relationship-requires-understanding-and-trust issue. What we have in these two different situations is people seeing and interpreting things from their own perspective.

Although the case is the same for both of them in the second example, each party’s perception of what’s happening varies.

In the first instance, we believe that we are driving at the right speed. Everyone else is wrong, going either too fast or too slow. We set the criteria for everybody: if our speedometer shows 70 km/h, that’s the perfect speed everyone should be driving at. Someone going 60 km/h is an idiot, everyone driving at 80 km/h is a maniac. And of course, we are always right.

And this is called Naive Realism!

What we believe

We believe that the world is as we see it, the way we perceive it. That we understand things, and if everyone had the same information as we do, they would completely agree with our opinion. If they don’t, there must be something wrong with them: lack of information, low intelligence, abduction by aliens, Democrats (if you are a Republican), or Republicans (if you are a Democrat).

What is the reality

The reality is that the world is different for every individual. Every person perceives things differently, and most of the times there is no right or wrong. You can have the exact same situation, the exact same thing, and people will see it entirely differently.

For example, here’s a photo of a rare Santorini sunset:

Naive realism picture

A photographer might comment on the composition of the picture, that it has a subtle asymmetry, beautiful colors, but the overall composition could have been better. A newlywed might mention how beautiful it is and that she really wants to visit this place. A physicist might suggest that it is a simple physical phenomenon: “every day there is a sunset, I do not understand what is particularly interesting about this.” Finally, a person that rents his apartment in Santorini through Airbnb might think, “this is a nice picture for my house, I should upload it to get more bookings.”

Although these four people saw the same picture, their thoughts were completely different.

So what is Naive Realism?

Naive Realism is the tendency we have to believe that we see the world objectively and clearly. Things are as we perceive them; our view reflects reality. The individuals that disagree with us are either biased, misinformed, tricked, or irrational.

This concept has its roots in the Naive Realism philosophy, which is “the idea that senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. Objects obey the laws of physics and repaint all their properties whether or not there is anyone to observe them.” (Source: Wikipedia: Naive Realism)

The first who came up with the concept of Naive Realism in social psychology were Lee Ross and Andrew Ward in their paper  “Naive Realism in Everyday Life” Implications of Social Conflict and Misunderstanding”

Professors Ross and Ward referred to the three characteristics that compose naive realism. According to their concept, people:

  1. Believe that they see the world objectively and without bias.
  2. Expect that others will come to the same conclusions, so long as they are exposed to the same information and interpret it in a rational manner.
  3. Assume that others who do not share the same views must be ignorant, irrational or biased.

(Source: Wikipedia Naive Realism (psychology) ).  

Naive Realism does not mean a person is stupid, but it suggests they have not been previously exposed to particular things. To give an example, imagine someone who does not have even a basic knowledge of physical sciences concluding that the earth is flat by reading some simple-minded articles. Without having been exposed to other information, their belief is strong.

Some Naive Realism Experiments

In his research for Naive Realism, Ross conducted a couple of experiments. Specifically, in 1977, he was researching the False Consensus Effect (The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes, 1977, Lee Ross, David Greene, Pamela House), which is the belief that in a similar situation to yours, people would do the exact same things with you, and this is a part of Naive Realism.  

In one of these experiments professor Ross asked 104 Stanford undergraduates to walk around campus wearing a sandwich board sporting the message “Eat at Joe’s.” Ross offered an alternative for students to participate in another experiment, in case they didn’t like hanging around with a ridiculous sign. About half the people he asked were willing to wear the sign and the other half refused. When the professor asked people willing to wear the sign how likely they thought it would be that others would too, most of them believed that the majority of their fellow students would agree (64,6%). In the same way, when he asked the same question to people who refused to wear the sign, most replied that the majority of the students wouldn’t be willing to wear the sign (68,8%).

As we can see from the above experiment, each group of people believed that the majority of other people would do the same things as them!

Another interesting experiment was conducted by Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantril (They saw a game; a case study 1954). After watching a football match between their two teams, students of Dartmouth and Princeton Universities were asked to complete a questionnaire. Each group was asked how many infractions each team had caused. Although both student groups saw the exact same thing, their replies differed significantly. Dartmouth students main answer was 4,3 by Dartmouth team and 4,4 by Princeton team, while Princeton students replied 9,8 by Dartmouth team and 4,2 by Princeton team. This is almost the double! Additionally, since the match was harsh, Dartmouth students estimated that both sides had the same share to blame regarding violence, while Princeton students accused the other team of starting the troubles.

Well, you might think that watching a game in a stadium might stir some feelings which can affect your rational thinking, but the thing is that the answers of the students who watched the game live were similar to those of the people who watched it on TV.

One aspect of Naive Realism is similar to the confirmation bias; we can notice how Naive Realism works in the Media. People watch or read the same news, considering their opinion as neutral and dismissing the view of others as biased. This phenomenon is called “Hostile Media Effect.” In another Ross research (The Hostile Media Phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the Beirut Massacre, Robert P. Vallone, Lee Ross, Mark R. Lepper), it was shown  that after watching the same news about the events of the Beirut Massacre in 1982, pro-Israeli and pro-Arab students believed that the press was biased against them and so the people behind the news programs were in favor of the opposite side.

Naive Realism consequences

As you can see, Naive Realism has a powerful effect; a lot of other biases derive from it. Among others, we already mentioned earlier the Hostile Media Effect and the False Consensus Effect. This is when you believe that your beliefs, opinions, and actions enjoy greater consensus among the public at large than they actually do. We overestimate the extent to which other people see the world the way we do. Many have the same expectations as we do, but usually there is no such thing as a unanimous agreement.  

Also, there is the actor-observer bias. This is the tendency to attribute our behavior to external factors or situations rather than claim responsibility for our own actions, while when judging a third party’s actions, we attribute their behavior to that specific individual and hardly ever examine external factors.     

Finally, there is the blind spot bias. This is the tendency to see how biased others are in their judgment, but fail to recognize our own biased thinking.

How to avoid Naive Realism

Naive Realism is hard to avoid. Most of us, in a way, fall victims to it. Even if you know how it works, it really takes some time to change your mindset.

But can we beat Naive Realism? Difficult, but not impossible.

Here is some advice you can use:

Instead of relying on your immediate thought (or System 1 way of thinking according to Kahneman) and your harsh judgment, try to avoid any initial impression and dig a little bit more into the matter that concerns you.

As with confirmation bias, look for disconfirming information. This will help you see the world from a different perspective and avoid the effect of Naive Realism.

Try to look at a discussion of a matter as a way to gain some knowledge and not as a battle against the other party. Also, if the other person does not share your opinion, try to see things from their point of view and think the way they do. This requires a lot of effort, but the reward in due time will be huge.


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By Plato
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