In social psychology, naïve realism is the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased. It provides a theoretical basis for several other cognitive biases, which are systematic errors in thinking and decision-making.
Naïve realism causes people to exaggerate differences between themselves and others. Psychologists believe that it can spark and exacerbate conflict, as well as create barriers to negotiation through several different mechanisms.
The term, as it is used in psychology, was coined by social psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues in the 1990s. It is related to the philosophical concept of the same same, which is the idea that our senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. Social psychologists in the mid-20th century argued against this stance and proposed instead that perception is inherently subjective.
Cognitive biases associated with naïve realism include the ‘false consensus effect’ (‘the tendency to overestimate the extent to which one’s values and habits are normal and typical of those of others’), bias blind spot (recognizing the impact of biases on the judgement of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one’s own judgment), and ‘fundamental attribution error’ (the tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics, rather than external factors, in explaining another person’s behavior in a given situation).
Lee Ross and fellow psychologist Andrew Ward have outlined three interrelated assumptions, or “tenets,” that make up naïve realism. They argue that these assumptions are supported by a long line of thinking in social psychology, along with several empirical studies. According to their model, people: Believe that they see the world objectively and without bias. 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. Assume that others who do not share the same views must be ignorant, irrational, or biased.
Naïve realism follows from a subjectivist tradition in modern social psychology, which traces its roots back to one of the field’s founders, a German-American psychologist named Kurt Lewin. Lewin’s ideas were strongly informed by Gestalt psychology, a 20th-century school of thought which focused on examining psychological phenomena in context, as parts of a whole. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Lewin developed an approach for studying human behavior which he called ‘field theory,’ which proposes that a person’s behavior is a function of the person and the environment. Lewin considered a person’s psychological environment, or ‘life space,’ to be subjective and thus distinct from physical reality.
During this time period, subjectivist ideas also propagated throughout other areas of psychology. For example, Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, argued that children view the world through an egocentric lens, and they have trouble separating their own beliefs from the beliefs of others. In the 1940s and 1950s, early pioneers in social psychology applied the subjectivist view to the field of social perception. In 1948, psychologists David Kretch and Richard Krutchfield argued that people perceive and interpret the world according to their ‘own needs, own connotations, own personality, own previously formed cognitive patterns.’
Social psychologist Gustav Ichheiser expanded on this idea, noting how biases in person perception lead to misunderstandings in social relations. According to Ichheiser, ‘We tend to resolve our perplexity arising out of the experience that other people see the world differently than we see it ourselves by declaring that these others, in consequence of some basic intellectual and moral defect, are unable to see things ‘as they really are’ and to react to them ‘in a normal way.’ We thus imply, of course, that things are in fact as we see them, and that our ways are the normal ways.’
Solomon Asch, a prominent social psychologist who was also brought up in the Gestalt tradition, argued that people disagree because they base their judgments on different construals, or ways of looking at various issues. However, they are under the illusion that their judgments about the social world are objective. ‘This attitude, which has been aptly described as naive realism, sees no problem in the fact of perception or knowledge of the surroundings. Things are what they appear to be; they have just the qualities that they reveal to sight and touch,’ he wrote in 1952. ‘This attitude, does not, however, describe the actual conditions of our knowledge of the surroundings.’
In a seminal study in social psychology, which was published in a paper in 1954, students from Dartmouth and Princeton watched a film of a heated football game between the two schools. Though they looked at the same footage, fans from both schools perceived the game very differently. The Princeton students ‘saw’ the Dartmouth team make twice as many infractions as their own team, and they also saw the team make twice as many infractions compared to what the Dartmouth students saw. Dartmouth students viewed the game as being evenly-matched in violence, in which both sides were to blame. This study revealed that two groups perceived an event subjectively. Each team believed they saw the event objectively and that the other side’s perception of the event was blinded by bias.
A 1977 study conducted by Ross and colleagues provided early evidence for a cognitive bias called the ‘false consensus effect,’ the tendency for people to overestimate the extent to which others share the same views. This bias has been cited as supporting the first two tenets of naïve realism. In the study, students were asked whether they would wear a sandwich-board sign, which said ‘Eat At Joe’s’ on it, around campus.
Then they were asked to indicate whether they thought other students were likely to wear the sign, and what they thought about students who were either willing to wear it or not. The researchers found that students who agreed to wear the sign thought that the majority of students would wear the sign, and they thought that refusing to wear the sign was more revealing of their peers’ personal attributes. Conversely, students who declined to wear the sign thought that most other students would also refuse, and that accepting the invitation was more revealing of certain personality traits.
A phenomenon, referred to as the ‘hostile media effect,’ demonstrates that partisans can view neutral events subjectively according to their own needs and values, and make the assumption that those who interpret the event differently are biased. For a study in 1985, pro-Israeli and pro-Arab students were asked to watch real news coverage on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (the killing of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut by a Christian Lebanese militia) Researchers found that partisans from both sides perceived the coverage as being biased in favor of the opposite viewpoint, and believed that the people in charge of the news program held the ideological views of the opposite side.
More empirical evidence for naïve realism came from psychologist Elizabeth Newton’s ‘musical tapping study’ in 1990. For the study, participants were designed either as ‘tappers’ or as ‘listeners.’ The tappers were told to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song, while the ‘listeners’ were asked to try to identify the song. While tappers expected that listeners would guess the tune around 50 percent of the time, the listeners were able to identify it only around 2.5 percent of the time. This provided support for a failure in perspective-taking on the side of the tappers, and an overestimation of the extent to which others would share in ‘hearing’ the song as it was tapped.