Perceiving Is Believing
How naive realism influences our perception of everything.
Posted Jan 23, 2021
The only true voyage of discovery...would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. — Marcel Proust
Perception is everything—and it is flawed. Most of us navigate our daily lives believing we see the world as it is. Our brains are perceiving an objective reality, right? Well, not quite. Everything we bring in through our senses is interpreted through the filter of our past experiences.
Understanding Sensation and Perception
Sensation is physical energy detection by our sensory organs. Our eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, and skin relay raw data via a process of transduction, which is akin to the translation of physical energy—such as sound waves—into the electrochemical energy the brain understands. At this point, the information is the same from person to person—it is unbiased.
To understand human perception, you must first understand that all information in and of itself is meaningless. — Beau Lotto
While Dr. Lotto's statement is bold, from the perspective of neuroscience, it is true. Meaning is applied to everything, from the simplest to the most complex sensory input. Our brain's interpretation of the raw sensory information is known as perception. Everything from our senses is filtered through our unique system of past experiences in the world. Usually, the meaning we apply is functional and adequate—if not fully accurate, but sometimes our inaccurate perceptions create real-world difficulty.
There are numerous optical illusions that distinctly convey how easily our perception can lead us to incorrect conclusions. Psychologist Roger Shepard (1990) illustrated that our perceptions can be inaccurate with his famous table-top demonstration (see video below), which clearly establishes that our brains may fool us into perceiving an erroneous view of reality regarding even the simplest of visual perceptual questions.
Countless illusion examples may be found in psychology textbooks or via internet searches, but this captivating video unmistakably illustrates how our past experiences in the world interfere with our accurate perception regarding a simple line length comparison.
How does our brain get deceived? We trust that our perceptual system constructs accurate representations of the surrounding world. However, our assumptions regarding perception are unsupported by evidence. The deficient understanding of how we perceive the world was originally termed naive realism by Lee Ross and his colleagues in the 1990s. Naive realism is thought to be the theoretical foundation for many cognitive biases, such as the fundamental attribution error, the false consensus effect, and the bias blind spot.
Perceptual illusions are endlessly fascinating and provide a microcosm of potentially faulty human perception. When we encounter these illusions, we initially believe we are seeing an accurate representation of reality only to be surprised by how easily our brains mislead us.
Inter-Group Conflict and Naive Realism
What happens when we extrapolate our perceptual shortcomings to large-scale human interaction? Too often, humans get stuck believing their view of the world is an objective reality. This, of course, leads to conflict with other humans who disagree, especially those we perceive to be part of an out-group. Naive realism leads us to reason that we see the world objectively—and that others do as well. When we encounter people who disagree with us on important matters, we tend to think they are uninformed, irrational, or biased.
Why does this happen? It is challenging and uncomfortable to confront our own understanding of the world, especially if we are unaware of our tendency for faulty interpretations of reality. Most people have likely not considered that their opinions about the world are filtered through their unique perceptual lens, which is fundamentally biased and based on past experiences.
How we perceive the world and important issues, from parenting to the political, is based on our perception. When we begin to understand that other people's experiences in the world vary greatly and influence how they interpret complex issues, we can begin to have a greater understanding of other points of view.
However, we tend to become more entrenched in our beliefs about our representations of reality when interacting with people in a different "tribe." Instead of seeking common ground—which can be an effective method to initiate belief change, we instead become more tribal and refute any information from our rival group.
What Can We Do?
The polarization in our modern world is widespread and appears to be increasing. Determining how to find commonalities between groups can feel impossible due to naive realism. Fascinatingly, researchers have uncovered a simple intervention that may promote greater understanding between members of rival groups.
Dr. Meytal Nasir (2014) and her colleagues set out to empirically investigate whether people could be more open to narratives of their adversaries (out-group) following an intervention that raises awareness regarding the concept of naive realism and the implications in the real world.
The researchers conducted their study within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an exemplar of a well-known intractable struggle. Their focus was to raise awareness of naive realism as a universal cognitive psychological bias that fuels adversaries to adhere to a collective narrative of the ingroup and reject the out-group narrative during conflict.
Results from the research indicated that the intervention—a short text describing naive realism and its implications—did produce an increased openness to adversary's narratives by raising the experimental group members' awareness of cognitive limitations. Fascinatingly, the intervention made no mention of the rival group or the specific conflict, yet still brought about positive change.
The Nasie research aligns with Dr. Lotto's commentary about how we can overcome our perceptual deficiencies.
By becoming aware of the principles by which your perceptual brain works, you can become an active participant in your own perceptions and in this way change them in the future. — Beau Lotto
A metacognitive strategy aimed at our perceptual system is a promising intervention for intractable disagreements between groups. While tribalism was certainly evolutionarily adaptive for humans thousands of years ago, current trends suggest it is detrimental and leading to deleterious consequences across the globe.
With knowledge regarding naive realism, we need to look beyond our own experiences and attempt to see the world with the eyes of others—especially those we perceive to be in out-groups. The insight uncovered with this new viewpoint may or may not move our positions on various issues, but as we navigate an ever-polarizing world of divisiveness—fueled by social media, it may be our only hope (sorry Obi-Wan).