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“Everyones an Idiot Except for Me” Naive Realism

“How could anyone think this way?”

Political polarization between members of America’s two major political is a common topic of discussion in modern America. People from opposite sides of the political spectrum no longer seem to view each other as having a different opinion, but as being either stupid or in some way morally contemptuous. A quick foray into a social media platform like twitter can demonstrate this. In a typical political argument on twitter there is very little debate and many more accusations of selfish motives and moral posturing. Has one side really become corrupted and the other’s loss of dialogue simply a response to that or are many Americans suffering from the cognitive bias “Naïve Realism“.

Naive Realism is commonly defined as the belief that one’s way of looking at the world is based on the objective interpretation of the world and therefore anyone who thinks differently must be misinformed, stupid, or morally dangerous. Experiments have been done that show the effects of naïve realism across a diverse range of areas, from sports to politics and beyond. One study commonly referred to as the “They Saw a Game Study” had students from Dartmouth and Princeton watch the same recording of a heated football game between the two schools. The footage was the same for students from both schools. Despite this, students from each school reported seeing very different events. Princeton students believed Dartmouth had made twice as many infractions as Princeton while students from Dartmouth believed the teams were equally violent and both were to blame (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954). These findings, while for something as simple as a game of football, are certainly very important. Perhaps a similar effect exists in politics. Issues that seem to have a common sense resolution to you may be viewed entirely differently by someone else down to the level of perception of the problem itself. All this might lead you to ask how could this be.

Naïve Realism is a problem in metacognition. Metacognition is cognition of cognition. Metacognition typically refers to awareness about our own thinking. If you felt you were unprepared going into an examination and then got a poor grade when you got the exam back that would mean you had good metacognition about your own knowledge how prepared you were for the exam. If you were to end up doing well on the exam then your metacognition would be poor as it turned out to be inaccurate. Basically one can think of metacognition as how well aware and accurate we are on our mental states and processes.

While Metacognition is typically used when talking about one’s own understanding of one’s cognition it can also apply to how well we understand what is happening in someone else’s cognition. A lack of understanding of others’ cognition and thinking is the cause of naïve realism. We experience naïve realism when we wrongly believe those with different views from our own to be holding those views due to having weak morals, being misinformed, or simply being dumb. We can think of this as an error in metacognition relating to other people’s thinking. These metacognitive issues arise as we tend to believe our perception of reality is completely in line with how reality really is and that others see reality in this way. We think this way as we struggle to understand other’s ways of thinking as shown by the empathy bias. The results of the “They Saw a Game Study” also show that this not everyone perceives reality in the same way. Even when viewing the exact same events people can see wildly different things due to their own biases. A specific example of a metacognitive error that leads to naïve realism is the mistaken overestimation of others’ extremism. Individuals tend to view people with different opinions than themselves as being more extremist (Robinson, Keltner et al., 1995): liberals and conservatives tended to overestimate how extreme the other side was in their views on issues such as abortion and racial issues. This overestimation could help explain why individuals are likely to view those with differing views as wrong as they make a metacognitive error that assumes them to be extremist in their beliefs.

These findings are also worrying as it means people may be missing a great deal of common ground with others because they are wrongly believing them to be absurd or extreme in their views. If individuals are wrongly holding several misjudgments of other’s beliefs, from how extreme they are to how intelligent they are or whether they are properly informed or not, it is no wonder debate is impossible as people may see it as futile to debate someone they view as extreme or stupid. This of course leads to anger name calling and fear of the other side which is pervasive on social media.

Don’t panic yet though, hope is still out there. There is reason to believe that the problem can be fixed. Studies have found that knowledge of naive realism reduces bias in those with strong political feelings and helps them become more open to opposing beliefs (Nasie, Bar-Tel, et. al, 2014).  This means hopefully by raising awareness and training metacognition people can be made aware of the dangers of naive realism and be made to understand that those with opposing beliefs are not necessarily corrupt, but as the “They Saw a Game Study” has shows us, truly do just see the world a little differently.

In this age of intense political polarization it is very important to keep in mind not only that others who may disagree with you have had different experiences and different values, but that they and yourself may honestly just perceive the world differently and that because of this you can’t simply explain away their opinion as ignorance or a lack of moral virtue. In the age of social media its important to realize how naive realism affects us so we don’t become shut off to new ideas


Hastorf, A. H., & Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game; a case study. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(1), 129-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0057880

Nasie, M., Bar-Tal, D., Pliskin, R., Nahhas, E., Haperin, E., (2014) Overcoming the barrier of narrative adherence in conflicts through awareness of the psychological bias of naive realism.  Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1543-1557.


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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.404

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