Naïve Realism: Bias and Betrayal in Everyday Life

Naïve Realism: Bias and Betrayal in Everyday Life

A good example of Naïve Realism occurs in an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine is convinced by her latest boyfriend, Blaine, to see the film “The English Patient”. She’d rather not but the movie she wants to see is sold out. Upon exiting the movie Elaine emphatically says, God, that movie stunk!

BLAINE: I kinda liked it.

ELAINE: (firm) No you didn’t.

From the exit emerge several of Elaine’s friends, who hurry over to see her. They’re all holding tissues.

CAROL: Elaine. Elaine, did you just see The English Patient?

GAIL: (tearful) Didn’t you love it?

LISA: How could you not love that movie?

ELAINE: How about, it sucked?

What makes sitcoms so engaging is that private thoughts not normally shared, are put on public display. Researchers Pronin and Ross, use the term Naïve Realism to explain that people think their response to a given situation contains less bias than other people who respond differently to the same situation. They go on to say that when people don’t see things our way we infer that it must be something about them; in our mind, we’re right and they’re not. Unlike our normal everyday interactions where we keep our opinions to ourselves, Elaine is unabashedly loud and unapologetic about the fact that something must be wrong with Blaine and her friend’s assessment of The English Patient. Bias quickly turns to betrayal in a later scene when Elaine sees Blaine coming out of a second showing of The English Patient with her friends. Elaine is shocked to see them all together and says to Blaine, “I thought you were busy tonight.” Blaine deadpans, “Well to tell you the truth Elaine. I don’t know that I can be with someone who doesn’t like The English Patient.”

To further illustrate the idea of Naïve Realism, let’s return to the Paradox of the Hag. In my original article, I used the example of Woody Allen’s academy award winning movie, Annie Hall, to show how opposing positions can exist simultaneously and how both can be correct.  In a split screen segment of the movie, Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) and Annie (played by Diane Keaton) are seen with their respective therapists complaining about each other.

Annie: A day in Brooklyn is the last time I remember really having a good time

Alvy: We never have any laughs any more is the problem

Annie: I’ve been moody and dissatisfied

Alvy’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Annie’s therapist: Do you have sex often?

Alvy: Hardly ever, maybe three times a week

Annie: Constantly, I would say three times a week.

On the surface, both positions appear reasonable enough with the only exception being that their perspectives are different. On a deeper level, however, each thinks the other is incorrect and needs to own up to their shortcomings. They suffer from what Pronin and Ross call bias blindness. Those poor ignorant fools, we think, if they only had our insight. Alvy feels if only Annie could see that having sex three times a week was hardly breaking a sweat then she would come around and stop being so irrational about it. Conversely, Annie thinks if only Alvy could see that he is constantly getting his way he would have a little more compassion for her since she is putting out so much more than anyone else in her circle.

The gap between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall is actually a perceptual gap and not a factual one. They both think they see reality objectively and then whine about the other not being understanding enough. This phenomenon of a perceptual gap is what researchers Robinson and Keltner call, false polarization, since it produces opposing factions among people. We often dismiss dissenting opinions as others being misinformed or emotionally influenced by personal biases, while we think our perceptions are free from distortions and limitations. Both Alvy and Annie feel that once their position is finally understood they will be free from guilt and blame and the disagreement will end in their favor. How naïve of them. Instead of either one of them winning, the relationship eventually deteriorates.

Naïve Realism is just what the term says, we think we see the world as it actually is but we are really quite naïve about our own perceptual limitations. So, the next time you think you have a rational interpretation of reality, think again. The person you’re talking to thinks you’re pretty dumb too. Don’t bother fighting about it either; it will only convince the other of your lack of intelligence and the obvious emotional blindness that causes you to distort and misinterpret easy-to-read facts. You can try to change the interaction by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, or by focusing on the facts while controlling your emotionalism, but at the end of the day, in the immortal words of the classic newspaper comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us. If bias blindness and perceptual polarization becomes fixed, betrayal will certainly follow. The key is to know better rather than trying to convince each other of who is right and who is wrong. We can temper the confidence we have in our position with the knowledge that perceptions are variable and in the end we wrap ourselves in the comfort of our own naïve realities like a warm sweater on a cold night. We just have to remember that everyone experiences the cold differently.

Five Minute Articles For Your Consideration2 comments

  1. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for bursting my bubble, Larry!

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