When Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford, explained to his students what his term “fundamental attribution error” meant, he loved to quote George Carlin. “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” The late comedian perfectly captured our tendency to attribute the world’s problems to other people and not ourselves. I’m the only good driver on the road. Everybody else should drive like me.
Ross and his colleagues demonstrated that the fundamental attribution error was fed by the illusion of personal objectivity. In a 2016 Ted Talk, Ross joked that people “believe that their take on the world is the objective one, and what has to be understood or explained is, ‘What is it about those other people that seem to get it wrong?’” Ross came to call this “naïve realism,” the tendency for people to think they see the world objectively, as it is, free from personal bias.1 Ross established three characteristics of the “naïve realist.”
First, the naïve realist believes that their perceptions are realistic and “objective.” Accordingly, other people (at least, reasonable other people) should share their beliefs, preferences, and convictions. Second, the naïve realist expects that any reasonable, open-minded person will be persuaded to agree with the naïve realist if there is disagreement between parties. If there is disagreement, and if the disagreeing party is a reasonable person, presenting the “real facts” should restore harmony. Third, anyone who disagrees with the naïve realist after the presentation of real facts is unreasonable, biased, or irrational.
Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot?
Ross and his colleagues spent decades characterizing instances where the illusion of objectivity shaped how people think. In one of their studies, participants completed a questionnaire asking about their views on various hot button political issues such as abortion and capital punishment. The researchers collected and randomly redistributed the questionnaires among the participants. After reading a peer’s questionnaire, participants indicated the level of similarity between their views and the peer’s views. They also indicated the extent to which rational considerations (such as attention to facts) and sources of bias (such as wishful thinking, unreliable information sources, and peer-group pressures) influenced their peer’s views and their own views.
Ross found that people thought their own views were shaped by rational considerations more than biased thinking. They also found that participants’ evaluation of peers relied entirely on the perception of similarity between their views. When students read questionnaires of like-minded peers, they saw their peers as reason-driven, rather than bias-driven. Conversely, when they read questionnaires of peers whose views differed from their own, they attributed their views to sources of error rather than rational consideration.2,3
We’ve been thinking a lot about Ross lately. For one of us (Erika), Ross was a favorite professor, and his death last year was a personal blow. What stood out for most people when they met Ross was his brilliance and readiness for humor. He was smart, attentive, and listened to his students. He cared deeply about growing the next generation of psychologists.
We also can’t help thinking about Ross because of how accurately his theory of naïve realism applies to our lives and culture today. America has fractured into separate camps because people are convinced their views are objective while those who disagree with them are deluded. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were characterized by something resembling a shared reality, but the country quickly devolved into factions over the effectiveness of mask-wearing and social-distancing. Despite evidence to the contrary, nearly one-third of Americans still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
As Ross showed, the best inoculation against naïve realism—the illusion of personal objectivity—is a healthy dose of fact, aggregated from non-biased sources with no skin in the game. But against the backdrop of a highly polarized political landscape, and a media environment flush with disinformation, it is exceedingly difficult to even know where to begin in de-biasing oneself.
Recent studies from the field of social psychology offer some breadcrumbs. For example, it turns out that simply raising awareness of cognitive biases helps people identify instances of bias in their own judgments and correct their thinking accordingly. In 2014, psychologists Eran Halperin and Meytal Nasie led a series of studies examining whether merely making people aware of naïve realism and its consequences could lay a foundation for compromise among Israelis and Palestinians. Participants were assigned to a control condition, or to an experimental condition in which they read a passage describing naïve realism and its consequences, which included the following excerpt:
Naïve Realism is the human tendency to form one’s own worldview regarding various subjects, perceived by an individual as the only truth. Accordingly the individual believes that other people’s reluctance to share his or her views arises from ignorance, irrationality, an inability to draw reasonable conclusions from objective evidence, ideological biases, or self-interest. The psychological bias of naïve realism causes people to see the world in a unilateral and simplistic manner. As a result of this bias, people tend to ignore or reject any information that does not fit their pre- existing worldview, which is perceived by them as the only truth. Consequently, they fail to see things from several points of view and may miss opportunities for change and progress.
Participants in the experimental condition—in particular, those who held more hawkish political ideologies—reported greater openness to learning about the point of view of the rival group following this short intervention. Remarkably, this was true of both Israelis and Palestinians, offering a simple and intuitive strategy to set the stage for dialogue between parties in conflict.4
In a 2022 paper, Halperin, psychologist Lucía López Rodríguez, and their colleagues built off this finding. They wondered whether a similar intervention might help Europeans become more accepting of immigrants’ cultural practices. In a series of experiments, European participants were randomly assigned to a control group or to an experimental group in which they read a passage similar to that used six years earlier by Nasie and colleagues. Then participants were given a battery of questions assessing their attitudes toward Moroccan immigrants; for instance, “I feel irritated when Moroccans speak their language around me,” and “I do not understand why Moroccans keep their ethnic cultural traditions instead of trying to fit into the mainstream culture.”
We miscalculate the extent to which our opponents’ viewpoints differ from our own.
Rodríguez and Halperin found—once again—that learning about naïve realism could be enough to buffer people from some of its most harmful effects. Participants who read about naïve realism reported greater acceptance of immigrants’ cultural differences as compared to participants in the control condition.5 And while it remains unclear exactly why this intervention works, Rodríguez and Halperin speculated that it has to do with the desire to maintain a positive self-view. “Realizing that our perception does not exactly correspond to reality could make it difficult to maintain an enhanced view of oneself,” they wrote. “This reduction in self-enhancement, in turn, may lead to questioning our beliefs, including those about the superiority of the ingroup, which would pave the way to accept others’ culture.”
While learning about naïve realism might help us overcome some of our political animosity, it is naïve to expect that alone is sufficient to repair the fractures in our democracy. A problem of this magnitude requires more than just a shift in individuals’ willingness to entertain others’ perspectives. But it is a place to start.
What’s more, there’s reason to think that now might be a particularly important moment to venture past our own perspectives. Polls show that Americans have more in common than not. Research from YouGov and More in Common suggest that Americans miscalculate the extent to which their political opponents’ viewpoints differ from their own. Democrats, for example, underestimate the extent to which Republicans think that properly controlled immigration can be good for America. Republicans, for their part, overestimate the extent to which Democrats think police are bad people.
Ross’s decades of scholarship show that people reliably misunderstand others, especially those most different from themselves. Remaining vigilant to the threats of naïve realism, epistemic humility, open-mindedness, and patience might be the only remedy to what Ross and his colleagues called the illusion of asymmetric insight, the misperception that we know others better than they know us. And this, according to Ross and colleagues, “leads us to talk when we would do well to listen.”6
I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong.
Ross spent years in the field bringing the lessons of social psychology to bear on some of the world’s most perilous conflicts. In work with Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, Ross and his colleagues developed an exercise that proved especially fruitful. Individuals from each side of the conflict were tasked with describing the other side’s position back to them. And they were required to keep at it until the other side agreed that they represented it correctly. “This procedure initially proves difficult for all concerned and inevitably produces false starts,” Ross wrote in 2018.7 “Yet when the two sides finally are satisfied with the efforts of their counterpart, they feel greater empathy for each other, avoid the caricaturing of each other’s views, and are on the road to a more thoughtful and less defensive exploration of future possibilities.”
In one of his final papers, Ross reflected on the work of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, when asked about his willingness to discuss abolition with slaveholders, offered the following insight: “I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong.”8 In the wake of ended friendships, fractured families, and with our democracy on the brink, Americans have a unique opportunity to ask themselves with whom they could partner to do good.
Most Americans also agree on one key issue: that democracy is imperiled, and America is at risk of failing.9 While Democrats and Republicans diverge on the exact nature of the threat and how it should be addressed, this rare instance of agreement presents an opportunity for cross-partisan collaboration. For Americans of diverse ideologies and beliefs to find their way to the negotiation table, they must recognize and examine their illusions of personal objectivity, armed with what social psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer referred to as Ross’ Golden Rule: “Proceed from the naïve but charitable assumption that when people respond in ways that are surprising or offensive, it is generally their perceptions, assumptions, and construals, rather than their basic values, that differ from our own.”10
Erika Weisz received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University. Her research explores how to use social psychological techniques to encourage people to empathize with one another. She is currently the director of research at Helm and a postdoctoral associate in the Psychology Department at Harvard University.
Sarah Stamper holds a Ph.D. in psychological and brain science from Johns Hopkins University. Her research is focused on understanding the mechanisms and evolution of behavior, including complex social dynamics. She is currently the senior vice president of science & innovation at Helm and a visiting scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Hopkins.
Lead image: Banu Sevim / Shutterstock
1. Ross, L., & Ward, A. Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In Reed, E.S., Turiel, E., & Brown, T. (Eds.), The Jean Piaget Symposium Series: Values and Knowledge Psychology Press, London, UK (1996).
2. Ross, L., McGuire, J., & Minson, J. The relationship between self-other disagreement and the perceived impact of biasing versus normative considerations on own versus others’ opinions. Manuscript in Preparation (2004).
3. Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: Divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review 111, 781–799 (2004).
4. Nasie, M., Bar-Tal, D., Pliskin, R., Nahhas, E., & Halperin, E. Overcoming the barrier of narrative adherence in conflicts through awareness of the psychological bias of naïve realism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, 1543-1556 (2014).
5. López-Rodríguez, L., et al. Awareness of the psychological bias of naïve realism can increase acceptance of cultural differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 48, 888–900 (2022).
6. Pronin, E., Savitsky, K., Kruger, J., & Ross, L. You don’t know me, but I know you: The illusion of asymmetric insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, 639–656 (2001).
7. Ross, L. From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, 750–769 (2018).
8. Douglass, F. The anti-slavery movement: A lecture by Frederick Douglass before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Press of Lee, Mann, & Co., Rochester, NY (1855).
9. Newall, M., Jackson, C., & Diamond, J. Seven in ten Americans say the country is in crisis, at risk of failing. Ipsos.com (2022).
10. Packer, D. & Van Bavel, J. Why naïve realism is one of the most important ideas in human relations. The Power of Us powerofus.substack.com (2021).