Naïve Realism Explains Why Politics Is So Polarized and Toxic

Naïve realism is the psychological condition in which people believe they see the world objectively and their opponents as uneducated, biased, or illogical.

The Happy Neuron
Jan 19 · 8 min read
Speaking with the other side of the political aisle is almost impossible at this point.

In 1954, researchers showed students from Dartmouth and Princeton a football match between their schools. They saw the same footage, yet they couldn’t agree on what they saw. Each side was more likely to notice the other team’s fouls and bad behavior and more likely to miss their own team’s. Both groups felt the referees favored the other team and were biased against theirs. Their perceptions of objective reality differed because they were on different teams and all were confident they were correct.

This should sound familiar to anyone that’s been paying attention to politics for the last few years. Democrats and Republicans witnessed the same events, yet they can’t agree on what happened. For example, the US has one of highest Covid-19 rates in the world, but a new poll from Pew Research Center shows that 76% of Republicans believe the pandemic was handled successfully vs. only 29% of Democrats. Likewise, on January 6th, 2021, alt-right fascists stormed the Capitol. Both sides saw the same speeches given beforehand, the same pictures, and the same footage. However, some Republicans believe it was actually radical leftists or that Trump and other conservative mouthpieces didn’t help incite it. Democrats were so sure Trump was guilty they impeached him for a second time, while the vast majority of Republicans in the House voted against it. It’s as if their political affiliation changed how they perceived reality.

Naïve Realism Leads to Cognitive Biases

Lee Ross, a distinguished professor at Stanford University, conducted 3 experiments which show how naïve realism leads to a warped interpretation of objective reality.

False Consensus Bias. In 1977, researchers Ross, Greene, and House conducted an experiment in which participants were asked to wear a sign advertising a local sandwich shop. Afterwards, they were asked to guess what the other participants thought about wearing the same sign. Those that had chosen to wear it believed the majority of the participants also wore it, while those that did not wear it believed the majority made the same decision. This demonstrates the false consensus effect, a common example of an egocentric bias, in which people believe the majority must share the same objective, rational thoughts as them.

The false consensus effect explains a lot about why US politics is so toxic. Each party believes they represent the majority. Polls, elections, etc. that indicate the opposite must be wrong or some type of fraud must have occurred. This is why the majority of Republicans can’t accept the fact that Trump lost the election to Biden and why they’re so quick to dismiss recent polls showing Trump’s sinking approval rating. For example, before the election, Eric Trump tweeted a picture of his father’s rally next to a picture of Biden’s rally to demonstrate why a poll showing his father trailing Biden must be wrong. Clearly, Eric Trump is suffering from naïve realism and the false consensus effect.

Trump’s son Eric demonstrating false consensus bias.

The original researchers themselves knew how their results helped explain toxic politics: “Such simple demonstration experiments hint at an unfortunate scenario in the domain of political discourse. Issues and events that become the object of social, political, or ethical evaluation are bound to be construed differently by different individuals.”

Hostile Attribution Bias. In 1985, Ross and colleagues showed neutral news footage of a 1982 Palestinian refugee massacre to a group of Israelis and a group of Palestinians. Despite being neutral, each group felt it was biased against them. Members of each group assumed the company, the reporter, the cameraman, etc. behind the footage must be from the other group. This is an attribution bias, in which you attribute intent, in this case the intent to be hostile. If people believe they have an objective understanding of an event and a news piece doesn’t echo these beliefs, then they are forced to assume the new piece is biased against them.

Likewise, Democrats and Republicans can view the same footage and feel attacked, simply because it conflicts with their naïve realism. When Trump had his Twitter account, the world was subjected to his constant refrain of “fake news.” Every piece of news that didn’t exactly conform to his interpretation of events was labeled as biased or outright lies. The Democrats do it as well. When news came out about Hunter Biden’s shady involvement with foreign governments and businesses, it was dismissed as an exaggerated smear campaign to win the election. That is, this information didn’t conform to Democrats’ interpretation of objective reality, so it was assumed it must be the product of hostile media.

Anchoring Bias. In 2004, Ross and colleagues asked two groups of participants to participate in exact versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a decision making simulation in which participants are forced to find the best outcome for themselves by either acting selfishly or by working together. However, one group was told the name of the game was the Community Game, and the other group was told it was named the Wall Street Game. Those playing the Community Game were more likely to cooperate, while those playing the Wall Street Game were more likely to act in their own best interest. This demonstrates an anchoring bias, in which one piece of information, often the first piece of information, influences later decision making.

Political examples of the anchoring effect are endless. Ross and colleagues gave the example of when President FDR was trying to sell social security to the American people. He knew there would be significant push back if it was described as welfare, a government handout, a redistribution of wealth, etc. Instead, “the plan was portrayed as a combination of personal pension and insurance.” FDR and his staff knew the that the program’s description would be the first piece of information the public received and that this information would influence how they felt. Likewise, Obama and his team carefully chose the title of his healthcare reform initiative, the Affordable Care Act, because the name would be the first piece of information absorbed by the public. Republicans, however, were quick to name it Obamacare because it made it seem more authoritarian and more egocentric. Perhaps the most egregious example of the anchoring effect is former Attorney General Bill Barr’s highly selective redaction of the Mueller Report. He knew the average person wouldn’t read the full report and knew his release would be the first interaction with the public. Therefore, he knew he could use people’s naïve realism and the anchoring effect to influence their opinion.

The List Continues

Reactive Devaluation. This occurs when a naïve realist devalues an idea, simply because it comes from their opponents. This cognitive bias is on full display when Republicans reject Democrats’ ideas and vice versa. For example, Republicans are quick to criticize Democrats’ budget proposals because they inflate the national debt, yet they were silent when Trump increased the national debt by 36%. Now that Biden is in office, the fiscal hawks are ready to pounce on his $1.9 trillion plan to fight the pandemic and provide economic relief.

Confirmation Bias. This happens when naïve realism leads people to seek out and overvalue information that confirms their interpretation of the world. Republicans and Democrats seek out and spread information about how their opponents are bad for the country, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. For example, when it was discovered that one of the insurrectionists on January 6th might be associated with far-left organizations, conservatives like Scott Baio were quick to believe it and share it.

Celebrity and Trump supporter Scott Baio retweeting unconfirmed allegations.

Shared Information Bias. This is the tendency for members of a group to spend more time discussing information they agree with and spending less time discussing new or contradictory information. Over time, a person becomes more confident in their interpretation of objective reality because he or she is surrounded by others that agree. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. Go to a conservative or liberal subreddit, and you’ll see the same ideas being said a thousand different ways.

Availability Cascade. This also referred to as “the Big Lie,” in that the more something is repeated the more true it seems. The best example of this type of cognitive bias is Trump’s never-ending push to convince his followers that the election was stolen from him. He knows if he, conservative mouthpieces, and his followers continue to say it, enough people will believe it. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels famously said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani repeating debunked claims about the 2020 elections.

Dunning-Kruger. This cognitive bias is the tendency for unskilled people to believe they’re more skilled and highly skilled people to believe they’re less skilled. Both Democrats and Republicans believe they have a deeper and more accurate understanding of the issues and that their opponents are uneducated. This gives the unqualified the confidence to seek high level positions or to opine on complicated subjects. For example, Betsy DeVos, the former Secretary of Education, had no education or government experience, yet she believed she could do the job.

So What’s the Solution to Naïve Realism?

Plato thought people were like prisoners chained in a cave, and reality for them was experienced as shadows dancing across the walls. In the “Allegory of the Cave” in his famous “Republic,” he explained these shadows are only the simplest approximations of reality. Understanding reality on higher levels could be achieved through breaking the chains, understanding the forms casting these shadows, and eventually leaving the cave. He believed most people would never do so because they were unaware something higher existed. For him, higher levels of understanding could be achieved through the natural sciences, logic and mathematics, and his theory of forms.

Plato was asking us to derive our opinions from demonstrable, measurable, objective truths. He wanted us to avoid logical fallacies, avoid pseudoscience, and demand evidence. However, most people don’t adhere to these principles. Rather, they are driven by naïve realism, so they spread conspiracy theories and treat politics like sporting events, leading to fascist wannabes attempting an insurrection on January 6th, 2021.

If we want to avoid the further polarization of society, listen to Plato. Focus on science and math. Demand evidence. Recognize your biases that alter your understanding of objective reality. Understand that everyone including yourself suffers to some extent from naïve realism. Break the chains and get out of the cave.

Originally published at on January 19, 2021.

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The Happy Neuron

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