One weekend my husband and I got into a fight over a pillowcase. It was one of those times where it was clearly his fault, and I was sure he would apologize the next day. He didn't. Instead he seemed surprised that I wasn't apologizing to him.
How could we have such different views of the same conflict? Which one of us was right?
It turns out that we were both right, in our own way. Misunderstandings like the one that led to our fight occur because people tend to be naïve realists. We believe that we see social interactions as they truly are, and that other people see them the same way that we do. However, one of the most enduring contributions of social psychology is the understanding that two people can interpret the same social interaction in very different ways, based on their own personal knowledge and experiences (Asch, 1952).
I thought my husband had taken my pillowcase as a joke. He knew he had done it by accident. These different pieces of knowledge led us to interpret the same conversation in very different ways. Our misunderstanding is not uncommon. In close relationships there will inevitably be times when our personal experiences lead us to interpret interactions differently than our partners. These interpretations may be due to chronic differences in culture or the way we were raised. For example, you and your partner may disagree about whether or not to be affectionate in public because one of you was raised by affectionate parents while the other's parents looked down on public affection. Different interpretations may also be due to something in the moment, such as getting upset with your partner for being late but not knowing that his boss stopped them on his way out of the office.
What does the psychological research suggest you do the next time your partner shows up late for an event, declines going to dinner with your friends, or otherwise does something that offends you in a major way?
I’ve described the consequences of naïve realism in terms of interactions with a romantic partner, but the same principles apply to interactions with anyone. If your boss seems to be really pushing you to get a project done, it may be that she is a jerk, but it may also be that she doesn’t realize how many other projects you have to finish this month—or maybe she's being pressured by her own boss to get the job done. When you interact with someone, whether a new acquaintance or a long-term partner, research suggests that taking a moment to consider that they may be approaching your interaction with a different point of view than yours can only lead to a smoother relationship.