January 9, 2017

Naive realism: undetected cause of many conflicts

All of us experience reality in a distorted way and we are mostly unaware of that this happens and how this happens. Here is a list of well-known human biases. On this list is a bias called naive realism. This bias plays a special role. It can be seen as the mother of all biases. Naive realism, a term coined by Lee Ross, is the wrong belief that reality is just like we experience it. In other words, it is the cognitive mechanism which blinds us to the many biases we fall prey to.

The limitedness of our experience

How is it possible that we are all, to some extent, naive realists? As Matt Lieberman explains in this article this has to do with how our perceptual system works. Without us being aware of it our experience does not only consist of our perceptual information but also of another component. This other component is constructed on the basis of out previous experiences. Our perceptions only provide a very limited picture and out brain fills in, automatically, all kinds of details. The result is that we experience the situations we are in as fluent and sharp. We are not aware that the whole of our experience is to a large extent determined by our own expectations of the situation.

If you wonder whether this is true you can do a little exercise which can help you notice how limited our perception is. If you look straight ahead you probably have a rather sharp and detailed view of your environment. Now hold out your right hand in front of you with your fingers pointing upward. You will notice it is easy to count your fingers like this. Now, keep focusing straight forward as you move your hand a bit to the right. What you will now notice is that it will become hard to count your fingers even after having only shifted your hand slightly to the right. This exercise shows that our perception is sharp in only a very narrow field. Outside that field it soon becomes very fuzzy. (Here Steven Pinker explains this exercise). 

Consequences of naive realism

What are the consequences of naive realism? One consequence is that we can judge situations wrongly and make bad decisions. Although we may have unrealistic experiences of situations we are not aware of this so we base our decisions on on them despite them being distorted. A second consequence is that we can come into conflict with other people. Matt Lieberman suspects that naive realism is "the most pernicious undetected source of conflicts and their durability". I view reality as A and, as a naive realist, I am convinced this is the correct view of reality. You view it as B, and think you are right. How will we think about each other? I wonder why you say reality is B, while, obviously, it is A. You must be dishonest or stupid, or both. You may think the same about me. 

Possible solutions

Can something be done about the problem of naive realism? Yes, to a certain extent. Science essentially is a systematic process to overcome our biases. Individual scientists are, of course, to some extent, also victims of naive realism but they are, hopefully, aware of this. The real power of science, however, lies in the way scientist cooperate using procedures with, together, eliminate the distortions of biases as much as possible. Because of this science can lead to knowledge which is less distorted than the knowledge which we can individually build based on our experiences alone.

But if we do not disseminate scientific thinking, methods, and knowledge well, a harmful gap can grow between scientists and citizens. Realistic views and ways of viewing are of little use if they do reach people outside the scientific community. The willingness to question our own views begins with the insight that our views are partly distorted. This is why I think we should educate young people about this type of psychological knowledge. Perhaps psychology should become a standard subject in all schools.

What do you think?

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