Why you often believe people who see the world differently are wrong

In psychology they call thinking that you see the world as it truly is, free from bias or the limitations of your senses, naive realism.

According to our guest in this episode, famed psychologist Lee Ross, naive realism also leads you to believe you arrived at your opinions, political or otherwise, after careful, rational analysis through unmediated thoughts and perceptions. In other words, you think you have been mainlining pure reality for years, and like Gandalf studying ancient texts, your intense study of the bare facts is what has naturally led to your conclusions.


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As Ross points out in the interview, your personal reality isn't the perception of what is "out there," but an observation of what is going on inside your head. Bertrand Russell put it like this, "The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself," a point illustrated by this static, non-moving image (mobile readers click this for bigger version):

Motion Illusion

Your brain takes in the information from your senses, but your reality isn't made up of the atoms of the "real world." It's made up of the atoms of your brain. It's an interaction, a conjuring. Among those brain atoms, the picture is moving, but here is the kicker, since every human brain will make this picture move within the subjective reality of each person looking at it, there is no human reality in which the image isn't moving. There's no objective stance, perceptually speaking. According to Ross, our political realities are no different than that swirling mass which isn't really swirling. On most emotionally charged issues, there is no objective perspective that a brain can take, despite the fact all the people on each side of any debate believe their side is the one rooted in reality.

Ross says that since you believe you are in the really-real, true reality, you also believe that you have been extremely careful and devoted to sticking to the facts and thus are free from bias and impervious to persuasion. Anyone else who has read the things you have read or seen the things you have seen will naturally see things your way, given that they've pondered the matter as thoughtfully as you have. Therefore, you assume, anyone who disagrees with your political opinions probably just doesn't have all the facts yet. If they had, they'd already be seeing the world like you do. This is why you continue to ineffectually copy and paste links from all our most trusted sources when arguing your points with those who seem misguided, crazy, uninformed, and just plain wrong. The problem is, this is exactly what the other side thinks will work on you.

Lee Ross was one of the first psychologists to study naive realism, and he writes about it in a new his book ,co-written with Tom Gilovitch, titled The Wisest One in the Room. In the original paper, co-written with Andrew Ward in 1995, the two scientists concluded that naive realism leads people to approach political arguments with the confidence that "rational open-minded discourse" will naturally lead to a rapid narrowing of disagreement, but that confidence is usually short-lived.

Lee RossWhen confronted with people who disagree with your estimations of reality, even after you've pushed a bunch of facts in their faces, you tend to assume there must be a rational explanation for why they think and feel the way they do. Usually, that explanation is that the other side is either lazy or stupid or corrupted by some nefarious information-scrambling entity like cable news, a blowhard pundit, a charming pastor, or a lack thereof. Since this is where we often end up, they say what usually happens is that our "repeated attempts at dialogue with those on the 'other side' of a contentious issue make us aware that they rarely yield to our attempts at enlightenment; nor do they yield to the efforts of articulate, fair-minded spokespersons who share our views." In other words, it's naive to think evidence presented from the sources you trust will sway your opponents because when they do the same, it never sways you.

Listen in this episode as psychologist Lee Ross explains how to identify, avoid, and combat this most pernicious of cognitive mistakes.

After the interview, I discuss a new study that found people are much more critical of other people's arguments than they are of their own, unless tricked to think one of their old arguments was someone else's.

In every episode, after I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, "You Are Now Less Dumb," and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode's winner is Jennifer Foote who submitted a recipe for frostbitten molasses cookies entombed in ginger. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Links and Sources


Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Lee Ross

The Wisest One in the Room

Carlin on Campus

Paper: The Selective Laziness of Reasoning

Neuroskeptic – The Selective Laziness of Reasoning

Consciousness Image: http://bit.ly/1GTwCEu

Illusion Image by Paul Nasca: http://bit.ly/1GTwHbc