Naive Realism

“There’s always lots of people who really want to meet with people. … And why do they want to meet? Because they want to explain to the other side how things really are. They think that if they do that, the other person will become easier to deal with in the future, and if not, it proves that they’re not objective, they’re not reasonable, that they’re not a partner. What I have never experienced in 40 years of doing this is people who say, ‘I really want to meet with the other side because I think I have things wrong. I think I don’t know the facts. I think my reasoning is askew. I think my reasoning is biased. I want to meet with the other side so that they can set me straight’ I’ve never, ever had the experience of even a singe individual tell me that.”

Lee Ross is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and has recently coined the theory of “naive realism.” It is really an easily observable phenomenon that occurs any time we have a disagreement with others. The realism part comes from our innate assumption that we perceive the world as it really is. For the most part, particularly with physical interactions with the world, our senses are quite reliable. We tend to translate this thinking into intangible ideas such as justice, security, and attraction. On that level, our intuitions become much less objective. The naiveté comes from the belief that others who hold different beliefs on such things are delusional, biased, or misinformed. If we were merely to provide them with all the facts we have, they would come to believe what we believe, and if not, they are simply irrational and cannot be dealt with.

Many of us probably gawk at the above description in its portrayal of such a close-minded personality. Surely, I am not like that. But think of this scenario: you are driving down the road and come up behind someone going a bit slower than you. “What an idiot!” you think, “This guy is going so slow!” Just as you are about to blow past him, someone behind you slides out and zooms by. “What a maniac!” you think. It’s really a wonder how the roads even work at all with so many idiots and maniacs!

That was the humorous yet painfully true observation presented by George Carlin over three decades ago. It is still true today, and I can remember a dozen instances of thinking the same exact things. I started, however, to notice this bias during my long read trip last winter. On the choked roads of Arlington, Virginia, I found myself getting frustrated with the apparently inept behavior of the drivers around me. Fortunately, my solitude gave me the opportunity to consider the unfairness of my perspective. It is wholly irrational to believe that with different experiences, different biology, different fears, different desires, and different perceptions that anyone would drive the same as I do.

Why, then, would I abandon this principle with I entered a different culture? My biases returned, as I suppose they ought to naturally, and I came to judge the people of the cultures in which I had been merely a sojourner who presumed to know far too much.

I have had the fortunate experience of having that bias challenged during my most recent time in China. Not least of all because of the wonderful Chinese people I had the chance to interact with while I was there, I came to realize that any judgment I had passed on the inferiority of their culture or society was wholly presumptuous and closed-minded.

My first visit back in May was marked by the cynicism of my jaded and discouraged host. In a world that doesn’t appear to make any sense, that fails to recognize the simplest of truths, and lacks any semblance of fairness, these emotions are wholly justified. However, they also penetrated my perceptions of Chongqing, a city that has literally sprouted out of the dirt of farmland over the past few decades. People here are rude, self-serving, dirty, and loud. They know nothing of conducting business, operating motor vehicles, or acting responsibly.

Take a moment to think about what all of those things look like. I have a very clear image of what they look like in that backward, far eastern land, but you probably have a very different view. A person from China would likely have an even more different view. Their view might even look much like what I see as the rational, sensible world in which I grew up.

Particularly during my time wandering the streets of Beijing, there were stark differences between the established capital of Beijing and the far away upstart of Chongqing, but there were also many similarities. This time, however, I did my utmost to see the world objectively. What I quickly realized was that I knew effectively nothing about this culture. I had spoken with a few Chinese people and gained a bit of a perspective, but a small handful out of 1.2 billion is an exceptionally small sample size. Not only their experiences or their genetics, but the vast length of traditions and wildly different linguistic practices that have led to completely different ways of thinking and perceiving the world must necessarily create a society in which things do not make sense to me.

I then thought back to my time in Korea, less than a week prior. I had finished my time there with such vile and unfair opinions of the people of that bold little nation that I had forgotten the respect and awe that I had gained upon my arrival. Sure, some things just don’t work very well in Korea, but perhaps their measures of success are simply different from my own. What works for the culture in which I was raised may well be a disaster for another. To speak of solutions here with any presumption of authority would be sheer folly.

The greatest folly, however, was to spread that bias to my friends, family, and guests. I am a naturally critical person. I believe that overlooking problems is simply cowardice and facing issues directly is the only way toward improvement, which is what I believe ought to be the objective of life. To criticize effectively, though, one must have a deep understanding of issues. I can say with great certainty that I do not understand Korean or Chinese society (though I understand enough to know how different they are). What I did was to provide an uninformed yet unflattering view of my temporary home when I would speak to other foreigners. In doing so, I would overlook all of the wonderful aspects of that country that allowed me to live such a comfortable and effortless life. For every issue I saw, there were ten more ways the country sustained a life that was by most measures quite good.

When we speak critically about our own nations with our friends and colleagues, we discuss from a common understanding of the positive aspects of our lives. I may criticize the American government for its failure to shift away from fossil fuels, but we Americans all recognize the fact that we can breathe easily even in big cities because of the Clean Air Act. I may criticize the continued cuts to science education in America, but we all recognize that the U.S. is still home to many of the world’s finest institutions of higher education in science and technology. When I make such criticism about foreign lands, my audience often does not have that base of understanding. The Korean education system may be train wreck of excessive competition, but Korean kids are really bright and have learned a lot by the time they get to college. Korean people may be annoyingly conformist, but few countries can band together in such a way as to solve crises on a national scale. The picture I painted for other visitors was only half complete and crudely sketched.

I would like to apologize to all of those whom I have jaded. I’m sorry to all of my couchsurfers who may now have a tainted view of the Korean portion of their travels. I’m sorry to my friends who have been witness to my exceptionalism and bigotry. I’m sorry to my parents who received nothing but cynical prejudice from my discourse.

The reality I thought I saw was only my own perception. Certainly it is justified to say what I didn’t like. I didn’t like they way Koreans educated their children. I didn’t like the way they drove. I didn’t like the way their government worked. And I most certainly didn’t like the music. Those, however, are not statements of fact. Those are opinions. Opinions are perfectly fine so long as they are understood to be no more than that.

In quite appropriate timing, I have found this podcast (entitled You Are Not So Smart) with guest Lee Ross while about halfway through the rail journey from Irkutsk to Moscow (a less than comfortable experience I will have to recap later). I find it startling and a bit sad that this professional, who has been involved in conflict resolution for four decades, has not met anyone who recognizes that they are likely the ones biased in a given scenario. Perhaps it is the product of my travels and my widely varying experiences, all coming in rapid succession, or perhaps it is just the excess of time I have had to reflect, but I would love to work with Professor Ross one day so that he can say he has met at least one person who recognizes that they are the one lacking the information.

Through a series of very foreign cultures, I have accepted the perspective that I am the outsider, that I do not understand, and that I am the one with inherent biases that need to be corrected. Indeed, when I return home, I will continue the pursuit of further understanding because one thing I have become acutely aware of while abroad is that I don’t even know the place of my birth well enough to make any valid summary. It is really quite obvious that it is I who holds the biases, whose reasoning is askew, and who lacks the facts. Now and forever, I want to meet the other side so that they can set me straight.

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