Undercover Economist

Delusions of objectivity

‘“Naive realism” is the seductive sense that we’re seeing the world as it truly is, without bias or error’

“Have you ever noticed when you’re driving,” the comedian George Carlin commented, “that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

True enough. But when you think for a moment about Carlin’s quip, how could it be otherwise? You’ve made a decision about the appropriate speed for the driving conditions, so by definition everybody else is driving at a speed that you regard as inappropriate.

If I am driving at 70 and pass a car doing 60, perhaps my view should be, “Hmm, the average opinion on this road is that the right speed is 65.” Almost nobody actually thinks like this, however. Why not?

Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University and co-author of a new book, The Wisest One in the Room, describes the problem as “naive realism”. By this he means the seductive sense that we’re seeing the world as it truly is, without bias or error. This is such a powerful illusion that whenever we meet someone whose views conflict with our own, we instinctively believe we’ve met someone who is deluded, rather than realising that perhaps we’re the ones who could learn something.

The truth is that we all have biases that shape what we see. One early demonstration of this was a 1954 study of the way people perceived a college-football game between Dartmouth and Princeton. The researchers, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, showed a recording of the game to Dartmouth students and to Princeton students, and found that their perceptions of it varied so wildly that it is hard to believe they actually saw the same footage: the Princeton students, for example, counted twice as many fouls by Dartmouth as the Dartmouth students did.

A more recent investigation by a team including Dan Kahan of Yale showed students footage of a demonstration and spun a yarn about what it was about. Some students were told it was an anti-abortion protest in front of an abortion clinic; others were told it was a protest outside an army recruitment office against the military’s (then) policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Despite looking at exactly the same footage, the experimental subjects drew sharply different conclusions about how aggressive the protesters were being. Liberal students were relaxed about the behaviour of people they thought were gay-rights protesters but worried about what the pro-life protesters were doing; conservative students took the opposite view. This was despite the fact that the researchers were asking not about the general acceptability of the protest but about specifics: did the protesters scream at bystanders? Did they block access to the building?

We see what we want to see. We also tend to think the worst of the “idiots” and “maniacs” who think or act differently. One study by Emily Pronin and others asked people to fill in a survey about various political issues. The researchers then redistributed the surveys, so that each participant was shown the survey responses of someone else. Then the participants were asked to describe their own reasoning and speculate about the reasoning of the other person.

People tended to say that they were influenced by rational reasons such as “attention to fact”, and that people who agreed with them had similar motives. Those who disagreed were thought to be seeking “peer approval”, or acting out of “political correctness”. I pay attention to facts but you’re a slave to the approval of your peers. I weigh up the pros and cons but you’re in the pocket of the lobbyists.

Even when we take a tolerant view of those who disagree with us, our empathy only goes so far. For example, we might allow that someone takes a different view because of their cultural upbringing — but we would tend to feel that they might learn the error of their ways, rather than that we will learn the error of ours.

Pity the BBC’s attempts to deliver objective and neutral coverage of a politicised issue such as the British referendum on leaving the EU. Eurosceptics will perceive a pro-Brussels slant, Europhiles will see the opposite. Both sides will assume corruption, knavery or stupidity is at play. That is always possible, of course, but it is also possible that passionate advocates simply don’t recognise objectivity when they see it.

But then how could the situation be otherwise? If any media outlet criticises a political position that you personally admire, there is a contradiction to be resolved, and an easy way to explain the disagreement is to conclude either that the media are biased, or that you are. You can guess which choice people instinctively make. Small wonder that careful studies of media bias in the US show that most newspapers and radio or TV stations don’t try to persuade their readers and viewers; instead, they pander to the biases of their audience.

It is hard to combat naive realism because the illusion that we see the world objectively is such a powerful one. At least I’ve not had to worry about it too much myself. Fortunately, my own perspective is based on a careful analysis of the facts, and my political views reflect a cool assessment of reality rather than self-interest, groupthink or cultural bias. Of course, there are people to the left of my position. They’re idiots. And the people on my right? Maniacs.

Written for and first published at ft.com.

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