What is Naïve Realism in Social Psychology?

Naïve Realism

In the field of social psychology, naïve realism refers to the belief that we observe the world objectively and that those who disagree are uneducated, irrational, or biased.

Naïve realism explains several cognitive biases, which are systemic errors in thinking and decision-making. The false consensus effect, actor-observer bias, bias blind spot, and fundamental attribution error are a few examples.

This concept in social psychology suggests that individuals are shaped by a trio of core principles: the belief in the veracity of one’s own perceptions, the assumption that others share the same perceptions, and the conclusion that those who do not are somehow defective in their thinking or judgment.

The word, as it is now used in psychology, was coined by social psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues in the 1990s. It is related to the philosophical concept of naïve realism, which states that our senses allow us to experience objects immediately, without any intermediate processes. In the mid-twentieth century, social psychologists claimed that perception is intrinsically subjective rather than objective.

Psychological Perspectives

Naïve realism suggests that people naturally assume their perception of reality is the complete and accurate representation of the objective world. Lee Ross, a prominent social psychologist, articulated naïve realism as a cognitive bias wherein individuals believe that they see the world as it truly is, free of any distortion or subjectivity.

This bias impacts how they interpret others’ actions and can lead to misunderstandings or conflict when others do not share their views. Regardless of the diversity of experiences, people tend to hold the conviction that their views are rational and unbiased, whereas others who disagree may be seen as biased or irrational.

Cognitive Biases and Naïve Realism

Emily Pronin studied biases related to naïve realism and identified a meta-bias termed the “bias blind spot.” It refers to the tendency of individuals to recognize the existence of cognitive biases in others while failing to see those same biases in themselves.

This blind spot highlights a discrepancy: most individuals describe themselves as more rational than the average person, showcasing an irrational bias about one’s own rationality. Naïve realism and related cognitive biases can exacerbate social conflicts, as parties may be unable to recognize their own subjective interpretations. They often consider their own beliefs and positions as rational justifications rather than acknowledgments of an inherently biased perspective.

Social Implications

Naïve realism often leads to a conviction that one’s own views are objective, thus clouding the judgment in social settings. Individuals may not realize that their opinions are influenced by their unique cultural and personal experiences, leading to a biased interpretation of others’ behavior.

Research suggests that when individuals disagree, naïve realism can intensify the belief that one’s own perspective is the correct one, inadvertently dismissing differing viewpoints as uninformed or malicious.

In instances of social conflict, naïve realism can act as a barrier to effective dispute resolution. It tends to contribute to misunderstandings among groups by creating false assumptions about the beliefs and motives of others.

This psychological bias underlines how parties in a conflict believe that their own narratives are the truth, failing to recognize that their adversaries might perceive the same facts differently. Raising awareness of naïve realism has been posited as a potential method for reducing bias and fostering more constructive approaches to conflict.

Reactive Devaluation

The idea that others’ opinions are more extreme than they are could pose an obstacle to dispute resolution. In a 1980s sidewalk study, pedestrians evaluated a plan for nuclear disarmament.

One group of participants was told that the idea was made by American president Ronald Reagan, while others believed it originated from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The researchers discovered that 90 percent of the people who thought the plan came from Reagan supported it, but only 44 percent of the Gorbachev group did.

This offered evidence for a phenomenon known as reactive devaluation, which includes disregarding an adversary’s concession on the basis that it is either driven by self-interest or less desirable.

Media and Social Media

In the realm of media and social media, naïve realism can lead to a lack of trust in information that contradicts one’s own viewpoint. On social platforms, users often assume their perception of the world is the unbiased truth, which reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.

For instance, in political discussions, a Democrat might interpret news through a lens that aligns with democratic values, considering other perspectives as distorted. This human tendency to view subjective interpretations as objective reality can create echo chambers, where one’s social media feeds become filled with reinforcing opinions and data.

Theoretical History

Naïve realism originates from the philosophy of perception, which debates how human perception relates to the external world. Underpinning naïve realism is the philosophical concept of direct realism, the theory that people perceive the world directly and accurately as it is.

However, this stands in contrast to indirect realism, which suggests that perceptions are mental representations rather than direct apprehensions of reality. Naïve realism in social psychology partially inherits its foundational principles from these philosophical dichotomies, arguing for a common-sense approach to perception among individuals.

In theoretical psychology, naïve realism forms a foundational principle that underlines subjective interpretation and its effects on social behavior.  It has roots in modern social psychology’s subjectivist school, founded by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist. Gestalt psychology, a 20th-century school of thinking that examined psychological occurrences in context as elements of a whole, had a great influence on Lewin’s theories.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Lewin created a method for understanding human behavior that he dubbed field theory. According to field theory, a person’s conduct is determined by both the individual and the environment. Lewin viewed a person’s psychological environment, or “life space,” to be subjective and so separate from physical reality.

In the 1940s and 1950s, early social psychologists brought the subjectivist viewpoint to the field of social perception. In 1948, psychologists David Kretch and Richard Krutchfield stated that humans view and interpret the world based on their “own needs, own connotations, own personality, own previously formed cognitive patterns”.

Gustav Ichheiser, a social psychologist, built on this theory by pointing out how biases in person perception contribute to misunderstandings in social relationships. According to Ichheiser,

“We tend to resolve our perplexity arising from the experience that other people see the world differently than we see it ourselves by declaring that these others, as a result of some basic intellectual and moral defect, are unable to see things ‘as they really are’ and react to them ‘in a normal way’.” We imply, of course, that things are exactly as we see them, and that our methods are the norm.”

Critiques and Counterarguments

Critics of naïve realism assert that individuals are not simply passive recipients of the world as it objectively is. Rather, perceptions are inherently biased, shaped by prior beliefs, experiences, and expectations.

This creates a problem of perception, where what is perceived might not accurately represent the external world. Naïve realism overlooks the influence of internal processes on the interpretation of social situations, leading to a gap between subjective experience and objective reality.

From a scientific realism standpoint, the belief that the senses provide an unfiltered view of reality is critiqued. Scholars in the field argue that scientific theories — often based on unobservable entities — better represent reality than perceptions do.

Representationalism presents a counterargument to naïve realism by positing that perceptions are mental representations, not direct experiences of the world. This philosophical view maintains that all observation is theory-laden and that what one perceives is influenced by cognitive schemas, which intervene between the external object and perception.

  1. Gibson, J.J. (1972). A Theory of Direct Visual Perception. In J. Royce, W. Rozenboom (Eds.). The Psychology of Knowing. New York: Gordon & Breach
  2. Hergenhahn, B. (2008). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0-495-50621-8
  3. Molouki, S., & Pronin, E. (2015). Self and other. In E. Borgida & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 1: Attitudes and Social Cognition. Washington, DC: APA. doi:10.1037/14341-013
  4. Pronin, Emily; Gilovich, Thomas; Ross, Lee (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review. 111 (3): 781–799. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.111.3.781
  5. Robinson, R. J., Keltner, D., Ward, A., & Ross, L. (1995). Actual versus assumed differences in construal: “Naive realism” in intergroup perception and conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3), 404–417
  6. Ross, Lee (1995). Reactive Devaluation in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. In Kenneth Arrow, Robert Mnookin, Lee Ross, Amos Tversky, Robert B. Wilson (Eds.). Barriers to Conflict Resolution. New York: WW Norton & Co
  7. Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1996). Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In T. Brown, E. S. Reed & E. Turiel (Eds.), Values and Knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
  8. Ross, Lee; Nisbett, Richard E. (2011). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. Pinter & Martin Publishers. ISBN 978-1-905177-44-8