Naïve Realism

What is Naïve Realism?

Naïve realism describes people’s tendency to believe that they perceive the social world “as it is”—as objective reality—rather than as a subjective construction and interpretation of reality.

This belief that one’s perceptions are realistic, unbiased interpretations of the social world has two important implications.

  1. First, that other, rational people will have similar perceptions as oneself.
  2. Second, that other people who have different perceptions from oneself must be uninformed (i.e., not privy to the same information as oneself), irrational, or biased.

Context and Importance

One of psychology’s fundamental lessons is that perception is a subjective construction of the world rather than a direct representation of objective reality. That is, people’s beliefs and perceptions are a function of both the objective properties of the world and the psychological processes that translate those objective features into psychologically experienced features. Take, for instance, the loving father who happens to be a judge at his daughter’s science fair. The father’s ranking of his daughter’s project in the 90th percentile may result from the fact that his daughter’s project truly was above average or from the fact that the father interprets his daughter’s science project in a particularly favorable light.

To be sure, people recognize that their initial thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are often subjective and biased. The father may well recognize that his initial inclination to award top honors to his daughter’s model volcano is unduly influenced by his desire for his daughter’s achievement. After carefully scrutinizing and correcting his initial inclination, then, the father may reign in his judgment, placing his daughter in the 90th percentile rather than the 99th percentile, as he was initially wont to do. In this case, like many others, people’s attempts to correct their initially biased judgments are often incomplete.

The important point for naïve realism is that people are seldom, if ever, aware of the degree to which their corrective efforts fall short; people consequently infer that their judgments are more accurate, objective, and realistic than they really are. Thus, the loving father truly believes that his daughter’s project deserves to be ranked in the 90th percentile, even if a more objective assessment places the project in the 75th percentile.

Lee Ross and his colleagues have discussed several important implications of naïve realism for social judgment. One is that because people believe that their perceptions are realistic, it follows that other reasonable people who have access to the same information will share those perceptions. This assumption is one reason why people project their own beliefs, feelings, and opinions on to other people. If one assumes that a preference for 1970s over 1990s music is a consequence of the inherent superiority of Led Zeppelin over M. C. Hammer, it seems only natural that other people would share that preference. By failing to see that one’s own preference is partly the result of a particular construal of 1970s and 1990s music, one may fail to recognize that other people may have a different preference arising from a different construal—for example, construing the Village People and Nirvana as typical bands of the 1970s and 1990s. Naïve realism tends, therefore, to produce an expectation that others think, feel, and behave similarly as oneself.

Often, however, other people see things differently than the self, and naïve realism helps explain people’s reactions in these situations. One reaction is that because people’s own reactions seem rational and realistic, other people who have different reactions seem uninformed or irrational and biased.

When a staunch Democrat learns, for instance, that her cousin is a Republican, she may initially assume that cousin John had not learned about Republican positions on taxation—that John was simply misinformed—and that providing him with the correct information would change his stance. After learning, however, that John knows all about Republican taxation positions, the Democrat might infer that her cousin is simply not a clear thinker or, worse, that he is systematically biased in favor of taxation positions that favor his own income tax bracket at the expense of less financially fortunate individuals.

Because people repeatedly encounter other people who see things differently from themselves, they may become accustomed to thinking that other people are irrational and biased. Over time, people may come to expect others’ beliefs and opinions to be based on careless reasoning and systematic bias. The staunch Democrat may come to expect that all Republicans, not just her cousin, are irrational and biased.

Believing the self to be rational and objective whereas others are irrational and biased can pose a substantial barrier to successful dispute resolution. When parties on opposite sides of a conflict both assume that the other side is irrational and biased, achieving a mutually beneficial resolution is that much more difficult. For instance, to the extent that Democrat and Republican members of Congress both assume that lawmakers on the other side of the aisle are self-interested and illogical, they are less likely to craft beneficial and purposeful legislation.