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Naïve Realism: Our Misinterpretation of How We Interpret the World

“I disagree.” Words that make us cringe. We have an innate desire for our worldview to be the correct one. This motivation is further exacerbated by our overconfidence in ourselves. We enter arguments thinking we are correct, but in reality, we have subconscious biases that may lead to us not being as accurate as we think we are.

Imagine that you are having an argument with a close friend about who deserves the title of the best baseball player of all time. You are adamant that the title goes to Barry Bonds, but your friend is dead set on Babe Ruth. You present your respective arguments, stating your opinions and even backing them up with the players’ incredible stats. You wonder to yourself, why doesn’t your friend have the same opinion as you? You figure they must be ill informed, that any logical person would choose Barry Bonds. However, you forget to take into account that your dad brought you to the Giants game on August 7, 2007, when Bonds broke the record for most career home runs (Baseball-Reference, 2017). The crowd went wild, the atmosphere was electric, and this became your favorite sports moment of all time. However, because you experienced this momentous event, you have a strong emotional connection to Bonds that tampers with your ability to objectively analyze him as a baseball player. Even though statistically, he may NOT be the best baseball player, your opinion is subconsciously swayed by your incredible experience that day at the ballpark. This highlights the basis of the cognitive error in psychology called naïve realism.

Naïve realism refers to the notion that our world view is strictly objective and veridical. We also believe that others will interpret information with this same view, and if their view differs, they must be biased or have an irrational thought process (Ross & Ward, 1996). To read about all the different psychological concepts that contribute evidence to naïve realism, click here.

The first study in support of naïve realism was conducted by Ross, Greene, & House (1977). In this study, they explained the false consensus effect, the idea that people tend to assume that the majority of others share their same views. Individuals filled out questionnaires with a series of different hypothetical situations. The situations were followed by the questions: “would you do this?” and “what percentage of people do you think would do this?” The results showed that people who answered “yes” also estimated that the majority of the population would do the action in question in the given scenario. And vice versa if they had answered “no.” So people have this sense of overconfidence that others would agree with their own personal view.

It is our innate nature to believe that people have this homogeneous method of understanding their environment, but in reality, how people interpret the world is immensely variable. The process of identifying an object, situation, or environment begins with cognition. Then, the next step is interpreting these organizations of information. To do this, we integrate prior experience, knowledge, and representations into the concept at hand. This is called top-down processing. It is from this that we derive our opinions, which we then portray to the rest of the world. This process is essential because it allows us to come to conclusions about our surrounding environment relatively quick, especially if we have had similar previous experiences. However, these quick reactions sometimes lead us to be substantially biased, which can potentially lead to some problems for us, especially when approaching an argument or conflict. The act of engaging in top-down processing leaves us vulnerable to naïve realism because it can result in a biased opinion.


Naïve realism typically carries a negative connotation because it can lead to people viewing the world in a unilateral manner. Without incorporating the views of others into your opinions, they tend to remain oversimplified. Naïve realism can also cause you to ignore or reject contradicting opinions, thus subsequently leading to missed opportunities to change and expand your worldview. Because of this, naïve realism is extremely relevant in any argument, especially political arguments and hot button issues. Robinson et al. (1995) conducted a study analyzing naïve realism within the extremely contentious topic of abortion. They recruited college students who were associated with campus activism groups involved in the debate on the ethics and legality of abortion. Pro-choice students read a rationale written in favor of pro-life, and then answered a questionnaire about the validity of their opinions and the opinions in the passage. The results showed that the participants perceived their views on the matter to be logical and original, and the opposing views to be influenced by political ideology and false
information. We believe we approach the situations without any previous knowledge or preconceptions affecting us, and our opponent has been influenced by their top-down processing to create bias. However, in reality, we are wrong, we are both using top-down processes! Maintaining this naïve view is unproductive to our everyday interactions and even our personal relationships. A previous blog post discusses how naïve realism can lead to the blind spot bias and being overly self-confident.

The good news is that naïve realism can be overcome. Nasie et al. (2014) conducted a study in which Israeli college students read either a passage describing the psychological basis of naïve realism, or a control group passage that was completely unrelated to naïve realism. The passage on naïve realism explained how it can negatively impact people by maintaining fixed viewpoints and rejecting other opinions. The participants then read a narrative, written by a Palestinian, about certain social issues, and were then asked about their openness to this narrative. Given the historical Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could be assumed that there would be a lack of cross-cultural empathy between the two groups. The results showed that participants who were made aware of naïve realism reported greater openness to the ideas in the narrative than the control group. In this study, people are actually using top-down information to resolve naïve realism. Thus, it seems that top-down processing is a double-edged sword within the context of naïve realism. If we subconsciously incorporate knowledge and preconceptions, we are vulnerable to naïvety. But, if we consciously access knowledge about naïve realism, we can work to reduce the bias.

Since naïve realism is the default reaction, there is not much that you can change about your immediate view, however, your interpretations and expressions of your views are malleable. With a little effort and situational awareness, you can overcome naïve realism! The benefits of overcoming it are immense. It allows you to perceive situations and opinions in a different light, and, most importantly, it leads you to the path of increasing your feelings of empathy. Empathy is the awareness and understanding of another person’s thoughts and experiences (Merriam-Webster). By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are able to vicariously experience what he or she sees. So the next time you think someone else’s opinion is wrong, put yourself in their shoes. Try to understand their thought process. Be empathetic. Overcome naïve realism.




Career Leaders & Records for Home Runs (2017).  Retrieved 15 April 2017, from http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml

Definition of Empathy. (2017). Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 17 April 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

Nasie, M., Bar-Tal, D., Pliskin, R., Nahhas, E., & Halperin, E. (2014). Overcoming the barrier of narrative adherence in conflicts through awareness of the psychological bias of naïve realism. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 40, 1543–1556

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 Psychology68(3), 404.

Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.

Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1996). Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In E. S. Reed, E. Turiel, T. Brown, E. S. Reed, E. Turiel, T. Brown (Eds.) , Values and knowledge (pp. 103-135). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

  1. Yi Feng
    May 10th, 2017 at 11:05 | #1

    This post is ver interesting. It reminds me of the cognitive psychology colloquium about protecting our knowledge base from misinformation, in which the researchers found that our semantic memory, which is our knowledge about the world, is actually not as accurate and stable as we think it is. Research found that our knowledge base can be easily misled by false information. Therefore, it is important to realize we might all be victims of naive realism and be open to different perspectives.
    Moreover, your stating that naive realism is automatic reminds me of automatic processes and controlled processes. While naive realism is automatic, we need to intentionally oppress it and pay attention to potential flaws in our opinions and important information in others’ opinions.
    Overall, this post is very useful and I have learned a lot. Thank you.

  2. ahnacc20
    May 7th, 2017 at 13:44 | #2

    This is a very valuable bias to know about! I am definitely guilty of believing that I usually take the more logical and correct side of an argument; I will certainly try to keep naïve realism in mind the next time I am debating with a friend or family member.
    It seems like naïve realism has some degree of overlap with confirmation bias, or the phenomenon in which one only seeks out and regards facts and opinions that validate their own beliefs. As described in the post “Why Students of Politics Should Leave the Colby Hill: The Confirmation Bias”, people from all points on the political spectrum tend to believe that their own stances are the only correct ones, and some will be ready with supporting evidence to back up their claims if anyone challenges this. Thus, they feel that their opinions are strongly enhanced by data and other objective material. In a case like this, someone who has read both your post and one about confirmation bias will be able to recognize that this naïve realism arose from the person only considering the information that’s in agreement with his or her opinion.
    Moreover, attention (or lack thereof) would also affect one’s experience with naïve realism and confirmation bias; when one pays more attention to the information that supports his or her beliefs, he/she is more likely to remember it. Conversely, a lack of attention towards confounding material means one is less likely to take this opposing information into account when forming an argument. As you mentioned in your post, naïve realism is dependent on top-down processes, which involve integrating preexisting assumptions and expectations into our cognition. So, if opposing materials are never regarded and encoded, they will not be available to be considered when we judge the validity and objectivity of our own opinions.

  3. May 3rd, 2017 at 19:30 | #3

    Thanks for the comment! The illusion of asymmetric insight is very similar. We definitely tend to have this overconfidence in our knowledge, thought processes, and how we interpret the world and other people. You bring up a good point about proactive interference. Previously learned knowledge may make us slightly more ignorant to a fact or point trying to be made in the present moment. We may rely to heavily on knowledge that we assumed to be true, and when an alternative opinion is presented, we may overlook it. If we let our opinions be more malleable instead of dead set in stone, I think this would help out a lot. Like you said, adjustment is key. All we can do is adjust and adapt to the changing knowledge of the world.

  4. May 3rd, 2017 at 19:03 | #4

    @Elizabeth Bainbridge
    That is a very good point! I will try to incorporate top-down processes throughout my whole blog post rather than just in that one paragraph. Addressing your first question, yes, even just the knowledge of naïve realism can lead to the reduction of bias. Nasie et al. (2014) conducted a study in which people were explained the concept of naïve realism and the possible negative effects. These participants were then less likely to engage in naïve realism. Also, I would assume that external knowledge can help reduce naïve realism. However, it is a double edged sword. Preconceptions can fuel naïve realism, but if you incorporate external knowledge of other viewpoints, then I think we would see a reduction of naïve realism. Expertise could also possibly help reduce naïve realism. To be an expert in a given field, you must take into account all knowledge and factual evidence, no matter what viewpoint it supports. However, experts may be overconfident in their own opinions due to their immense knowledge of the subject matter.

  5. May 1st, 2017 at 16:22 | #5

    This was super interesting! I always thought that I was just being particularly obstinate, not just falling for a cognitive bias! Early on in your post, you mentioned the influence of top-down processing, which as we’ve learned in PS 232 this semester, is an important process for everything from pattern recognition to attention to memory. However, your discussion of top-down processes is limited to one paragraph. I’m interested in its role in correcting the naïve realism. How does learning about naïve realism compare to learning more about the topic that is being discussed. Might adding more knowledge (and being able to use top-down processing) make us more susceptible to understanding the views of others? Also, when someone has more expertise in the field that is being discussed, how might that affect the bias? Does it make it easier for someone to listen to the expertise’s point of view?

  6. eholland
    April 19th, 2017 at 15:50 | #6

    Cool! I wrote about a similar bias, the illusion of asymmetric insight, which is our tendency to believe we know other around us better than they know us. The two definitely seem to overlap in that we react to specific inputs from our environment, in this case a behavior of an individual with an opposing view, by coming to an interpretation of that behavior through the process of pattern recognition. As you mentioned, the interpretation heavily depends on how one is able to integrate the input with their prior knowledge. Therefore if we have previously stored knowledge of a person, it may inhibit our ability to think clearly about incoming information (in the form of proactive interference). How might this proactive interference effect an individual’s ability to properly make judgements, and are there even ways to diminish this proactive interference/ should we try to diminish it? Obviously we cant change the way we were raised and the experiences we’ve had that have made us who we are and formed our beliefs, which is why I really liked you remark on simply employing empathy as a means of adjustment. I guess realistically that’s all we can really do.

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