matthew_d_lieberman's picture
Professor of Psychology, UCLA; Author, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
Naïve Realism

The comedian George Carlin once noted “that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” The obscure scientific term explaining why we see most people other than ourselves as unintelligent or crazy is naïve realism. Its origins trace back to at least the 1880s when philosophers used the term to suggest we ought to take our perceptions of the world at face value. In its modern incarnation, it has taken on almost the opposite meaning, with psychologist Lee Ross using the term to indicate that although most people take their perceptions of the world at face value, this is a profound error that regularly causes virtually unresolvable conflicts between people.

Imagine three drivers in Carlin’s world—Larry, Moe, and Curly. Larry is driving 30 MPH, Moe is driving 50 MPH, and Curly is driving 70 MPH. Larry and Curly agree that Moe’s driving was terrible, but are likely to come to blows over whether Moe is an idiot or a maniac. Meanwhile, Moe disagrees with both because it is obvious to him that Larry is an idiot (which Curly agrees with) and Curly is a maniac (which Larry agrees with). As in ordinary life, Larry, Moe, and Curly each fail to appreciate that their own understanding of the others is hopelessly tied to their own driving rather than reflecting something objective about the other person.

Naïve realism occurs as an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise adaptive aspect of brain function. Our remarkably sophisticated perceptual system performs its countless computations so rapidly that we are unaware of all the special effects teams working in the background to construct our seamless experience. We “see” so much more than is in front of us thanks to our brains automatically combining sensory input, with our expectations and motivations. This is why a bicycle that is partially hidden by a wall is instantly “seen” as a normal bicycle without a moment’s thought that it might only be part of a bicycle. Because these constructive processes happen behind the scenes of our mind, we have no idea this is happening and thus we mistake our perception for reality itself—a mistake we are often better off for having made.

When it comes to perceiving the physical world, we appear to mostly see things the same way. When confronted with trees, shoes, and gummy bears, our brains construct these things for us in similar enough ways that we can agree on which to climb, which to wear, and which to eat. But when we move to the social domain of understanding people and their interactions, our “seeing” is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation. Because our mental construction of the social world is just as invisible to us as our construction of the physical world, our idiosyncratic expectations and motivations are much more problematic in the social realm. In short, we are just as confident in our assessment of Donald Trump’s temperament and Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty as we are in our assessment of trees, shoes, and gummy bears. In both cases, we are quite certain that we are seeing reality for what it is.

And this is the real problem. This isn’t a heuristics and biases problem where our simplistic thinking can be corrected when we see the correct solution. This is about “seeing” reality. If I am seeing reality for what it is and you see it differently, then one of us has a broken reality detector and I know mine isn’t broken. If you can’t see reality as it is, or worse yet, can see it but refuse to acknowledge it, then you must be crazy, stupid, biased, lazy or deceitful.

In the absence of a thorough appreciation for how our brain ensures that we will end up as naïve realists, we can’t help but see complex social events differently from one another, with each of us denigrating the other for failing to see what is so obviously true. Although there are real differences that separate groups of people, naïve realism might be the most pernicious undetected source of conflicts and their durability. From Israel vs. Palestinians, to the American political left and right, to the fight over vaccines and autism—in each case our inability to appreciate our own miraculous construction of reality is preventing us from appreciating the miraculous construction of reality happening all around us.