Why do we believe we have an objective understanding of the world?
Naive Realism, explained.
What is naive realism?
Naive realism is the tendency to believe our perception of the world reflects it exactly as it is, unbiased and unfiltered. We don’t think our emotions, past experiences, or cultural identity affect the way we perceive the world and thus believe others see it in the same way as we do. Naive realism rests on the idea that there is a material, objective world accessible to us and others around us.1
Naive realism is within the egocentric bias category, a group of biases that indicate we rely too heavily on our own point of view and fail to understand that it is a personal point of view. These biases make it difficult for us to understand other people’s perspectives and can lead to arguments and polarization.2
Where this bias occurs
Have you ever had an argument with someone over what the best TV show is? Let’s say your favorite show is Friends. You might have engaged in a heated debate over which is better — the Office or Friends — unable to understand how the other person perceives the two shows differently. How do they not see that Friends clearly has the best one-liners, and that Joey is the most hilarious character ever written?
The reason we are so flabbergasted when other people don’t have the same point of view as us is because of naive realism. We believe that a TV show, which exists as a material object that we can sense with our perception, exists outside of ourselves and can be objectively accessed through our senses.
Debias Your Organization
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If we are unable to see that our perception of the world is clouded by our biases, when someone’s perception is different to ours, we believe them to be ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’. Instead of expanding our knowledge by trying to understand the world through a different perspective, we think of ourselves and our point of view, as being superior. While we are the people who are ignorant, not well-informed, and biased, we end up thinking that the other person that doesn’t share our point of view is all of those things.3
Naive realism causes us to ignore conflicting perceptions, which makes us miss out on an opportunity to expand our worldview. If we saw our perception of the world as an opinion rather than an objective worldview, we could have more interesting and fruitful conversations with others. For example, naive realism can cause us to think our opinion that Missy Elliot is the best artist is a fact, and not bother listening to the up-and-coming indie artist that our friend loves.
Not that big of a deal — but naive realism impacts more serious topics of debate as well. On a more serious scale, it means we don’t pay attention to other political views, other philosophical schools of thought, or other cultural beliefs. While we can point out the influences that impact some else’s behavior, we find it difficult to see our own biases.4
While naive realism might lead to harmless arguments like a debate over Friends and The Office, not being able to understand others’ point of view can have negative consequences to society.
Because of naive realism, different cultures can sometimes have a difficult time understanding one another. A respectful gesture in one culture might actually be a sign of disrespect in another. In China and Taiwan, burping after a meal is the highest form of flattery to the chef, yet, that behavior is seen as rude in North America.5
We’re also living in an increasingly polarized society due to naive realism. These days, it is easy to find supporting evidence for our opinion, which makes us more likely to believe our perception of what is real is the ‘right’ one. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic — whether we are in favor of the vaccine, think it contains a microchip, or believe it hasn’t been sufficiently researched, it’s easy to find supporting evidence online for our belief. We also seek out more information that will confirm our opinions, a phenomenon known as the confirmation bias.
It has led to an inability for different political sides to even talk to one another. It might seem like Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything. Think back to January 6th, 2021, when alt-right fascists stormed the capital. Everyone saw the same speeches, the same footage, and the same pictures of the raid, yet both sides had radically different opinions on what happened. People’s political affiliation skewed their perception of reality, but neither side recognized that.7
Why it happens
Naive realism is an egocentric cognitive distortion that skews the way we perceive the world because we rely too heavily on our perceptions as reality. It’s concretized by the false consensus bias, which causes us to assume other people share the same opinions as us and therefore that our opinions are more like fact.7
Naive realism is also a product of the way our brains process information. We use top-down processing, where we begin with the general and move down to the specific. Instead of focusing on the particulars in front of us, our general opinions influence our perception of new information. We use top-down processing because on a daily basis we encounter a vast amount of information.8
Another reason that naive realism occurs is because it’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around the idea that material reality might not actually exist objectively. We think that things exist independently of us which is why their ‘real’ state can be perceived. Yet, some philosophical schools of thought suggest that there is no such thing as an independent material world, at least not one that we can perceive through our senses. These philosophical theories, known as indirect realism and idealism, suggest that the material world can’t actually be disentangled from our perceptions of it.9
Why it is important
As mentioned above, naive realism can have negative consequences and lead to conflict. It causes us to have a narrow worldview and complicates our ability to talk over differences. It not only hinders our knowledge, but can negatively impact our relationships as well. If you don’t treat your friends’ and family’s opinions with the respect they deserve you are quickly going to find yourself with fraught relationships.
How to avoid it
Thankfully, awareness of naive realism can help combat its effects. If we realize our perception of the world is subjective and skewed by our biases, we can begin to deconstruct our egocentrism.
In 2014, Israeli professor Meytal Nasie and his colleagues conducted a study to see if naive realism could be overcome through awareness. They asked one group of students to read a description of naive realism, while another control group read a passage unrelated to the psychological phenomenon. The two groups then read a passage by a Palestinian about social issues. Historical Israeli-Palestinian conflict was assumed to be an obstacle to openness to the opinions expressed in the passage and empathy with the writer. However, Nasie et al. found that the students who read the description of naive realism reported greater openness to the writers’ ideas and opinions than the control group.10
This study shows that just by reading this article, you’re less likely to be influenced by naive realism! Great start.
How it all started
Naive realism was first conceptualized in the early 1900s by German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin. He developed field theory, which suggests that people’s behavior is a function of the person and the psychological environment, which means that our behavior — including our perception — is subjective and distinct from physical reality. Lewin did not coin the term naive realism but was a catalyst that sparked interest in the relationship between perception and the material world.
Based on Lewin’s work, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget studied children’s perceptions and found that they viewed the world through an egocentric lens. He found that children have trouble separating their beliefs from the beliefs of others — and apparently, we don’t grow out of that! 11
Many years later, American social psychologists Lee Ross and Andrew Ward officially developed the phenomenon ‘naive realism’ in their 1996 paper “Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding.” They examined construal, the way that people perceive and interpret their world, and showed — as stated by their subtitle — we have “insufficient allowance for construal difference.” 12
As more research was conducted into naive realism, other cognitive biases were discovered, such as the fundamental attribution error. This error describes our tendency to perceive others’ actions very differently to how we perceive our own.
Naive Realism and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Although naive realism is one of the causes behind polarizing political views, we expect heated debates when it comes to politics. We’re less familiar with situations where society is so divided on a scientific matter and the risk of everyday behaviors, which we encountered with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We often surround ourselves with people that have similar opinions to ours, which means we are not met with our own naive realism too often. Yet, the pandemic saw members of the same families have vastly different perceptions of what kind of behavior is appropriate during the pandemic. You might have felt that going for a walk with your best friend presented a low risk, but your parents (who you moved in with during the pandemic to save money) might have told you it was too dangerous. How do you navigate these differences with loved ones?
In September 2020, pioneer of behavioral science George Loewenstein and psychologist Elke Webber published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times to help guide individuals facing these family conflicts. They informed individuals of naive realism and the false consensus bias and explored how it impacts our relationships during stressful times like the COVID-19 pandemic.13
Naive realism suggests we believe all people perceive the pandemic and the risks associated with it, in the same way as us. When our parents tell us we’re not allowed to go on the walk, we don’t pause and think ‘they must associate the walk with greater risk to our health than I do.’ We probably think they are being unfair and unreasonable, punishing us for no reason. Similarly, if a friend turns down our invite for a picnic in the park, we might believe there is a different cause for them rejecting the invite — like they are mad at us — instead of acknowledging they might have a different perception of what is appropriate behavior during the pandemic.13
The article also noted that we have to be considerate when broaching the topic of differing opinions. People don’t like to have their perceptions of reality challenged, so arguing with someone that they are biased isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, it is important to try and put yourself in the other’s position and try to understand their point of view, and explain where your own perception comes from instead of acting like it is an objective understanding of reality.13
Philosophical Naive Realism - The Three Theories of Reality
There are multiple philosophical theories on what exactly ‘reality’ is that all differ in their beliefs of whether reality exists independently from perception, and whether we can access that material reality. The three predominant ones are naive realism, as discussed in this article, indirect realism, which suggests that while material reality does exist independently, we are not able to perceive it objectively, and idealism, which suggests that material reality doesn’t exist at all, only our perception of reality exists.14
Let’s take the example of a tree to demonstrate how these three theories differ. Naive realists would argue that the tree exists in a material, objective sense, and that our perception of the tree is real because it is based on its objective physical attributes. Whether or not someone is there to perceive the tree, it exists independently.14
Indirect realists would agree that the tree exists in a material, objective sense, but would claim that we do not perceive the tree as it is. Instead, we process it and interpret it subjectively.14
Idealists, alternatively, suggest that if a person does not perceive the tree, then the tree does not exist, because the only thing that exists are our minds’ perceptions of reality, not material reality itself.14
What it is
Naive realism is an egocentric bias that causes us to believe that our perception of reality is objective and not influenced by our biases. It causes us to believe other people are ‘wrong’ if their perceptions do not match ours.
Why it happens
Naive realism occurs because we find it hard to understand how people can perceive material reality differently to us. While we are good at pointing out the biases that influence other’s opinions, we are much worse at recognizing our own subjective influences.
Naive Realism and the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that everyone has a different perception of reality. Friends and family of yours might have had different opinions on what kind of behavior was appropriate, and what activities were too risky, which could easily have led to conflict. To avoid it, we must be empathetic to others’ point of view and understand that each person perceives reality subjectively.
The Three Theories of Reality
Naive realism is but one philosophical theory of reality. It states that we perceive material objects exactly as they are, whereas indirect realism suggests our perceptions are clouded by our biases, and idealism suggests the material world does not exist independently of our perceptions.
How to avoid it
The influence of naive realism is diminished through awareness. By understanding that our own perceptions are not fact, but opinions that are shaped by an array of influences, we might begin to understand that people who have conflicting opinions are not ‘wrong’, but simply have a different perception of reality.
Related TDL articles
Naive realism shows us that we are living in realities that we construct ourselves, which is only increasing due to curated content that reinforces our existing beliefs. If we like a post relating to Democrats, our social media algorithm will show us more similar content. In this article, our contributor Katharine Sephton explores how curated content limits our knowledge and how trigger warnings — despite their intent — end up sheltering people from views different to their own.
If you’re interested in the philosophical side of naive realism, you should read our reference guide on materialism. Similarly to naive realism, materialism suggests that things really do exist as matter, and our perception is a product of interacting with that material. The guide explores the fact that materialism precludes the existence of non-material things, like God, ghosts, or spirits, which have profound impacts on people’s lives.