You’re teaching your child to tie their shoes for the first time. With your parent’s help, you’ve long since mastered the task—you were a brilliant, model student. Now it’s your turn. With your clear, expert instructions, your child will understand and perform flawlessly. For good measure, you repeat your instructions, your child nodding in agreement. You think, “There’s no way they can get this wrong.” Eager to show you what they’ve learned, your child confidently attempts to tie their shoes, doing precisely the opposite of what you believe you’ve instructed.
Confident in the clarity of your instructions, you conclude, “My child is either not capable of following simple directions, or they’re just being lazy.” Maybe, but there might be other, more charitable explanations. It may be that your intelligent and diligent child was simply distracted by the need to use the restroom during your lecture. Or, perhaps your common-sense instructions, as clear as they seemed to you, were neither common nor clear when perceived through your child’s eyes, ears, and experience.
The above scenario illustrates an interaction that frequently occurs between humans. Multiple people experiencing the same event will often have different perspectives, different perceptions, different interpretations, and different but equally confident conclusions.
Psychologists have found that people (like our hypothetical parent above) often believe they see the world as it “really is.” They are confident that they perceive “true” reality. Inevitably, these same people will encounter others who operate from different perspectives (such as our shoe-tying child) and will be compelled to reconcile the different outcomes. Some will conclude that those who disagree with their interpretations or conclusions must suffer from a personal flaw. These disagreements can be seen as the product of people who are irrational, ignorant, failing to understand, or not as educated. But there may be another reason.
This article introduces readers to the mindset known as “naïve realism” and highlights some of its implications for force review.
A Chain of Three Naïve Beliefs
Psychologists use the phrase naïve realism to describe three related aspects of how humans tend to evaluate their judgment against those of others.
First, humans tend to assume their perception of something (and the world generally) is objectively correct.1 They believe they perceive the “true” reality and that their conclusions are free from bias or distortion. Instead, they view their judgment as the obvious result of simply applying common sense.2 In other words, “The [fill in the blank] speaks for itself!”
Second, people tend to believe any other rational person viewing the same event will have the same reaction, conclusion, and opinion.2 “I’m right, and reasonable people will see that I’m right.”
Third, people tend to draw adverse and uncharitable conclusions about those who offer alternative interpretations of the same information. While people are generally blind to the possibility that their own perception could be distorted, they may nevertheless assume anyone holding an alternative view (based on the same information) must be flawed, influenced by bias, self-interest, irrationality, or laziness.2 “I’m obviously right, and there must be something wrong with you.”
People who think this way may not recognize how their biases, experiences, or beliefs contribute to their perceptions and conclusions.3 They may fail to consider whether their conclusion is based on inaccurate or otherwise limited information.4
A naïve realist may be inclined to believe that complex information and events require no subjective interpretation at all. They may fail to seek additional information or consider alternative interpretations during decision-making. This mindset leads people to believe they have arrived at the singular, correct, and only possible conclusion, such that additional information or viewpoints become irrelevant. Besides, anyone holding a contrary viewpoint must be biased, crazy, or worse.
Not surprisingly, researchers have identified the naïve realist mindset as a factor in various social and political disputes. Researchers have also suggested that naïve realism may impact the weight decision-makers give to certain types of information. More research is needed regarding the impact of this mindset on the criminal justice system. In the meantime, the following points are worth pondering.
Everybody’s Doing It
While naïve realism may seem incredibly arrogant and off-putting, researchers have found that it is a common default human mindset; deep-seated, fundamental, and universal in human thought processes.5 In other words, all humans—even the most sophisticated and self-conscious among us—tend to believe they are correct and unbiased while viewing others as incorrect and biased.6
Since our criminal justice system requires humans to perceive and judge the events put in front of them, we expect that judges, investigators, jurors, witnesses, prosecutors, and officers may confidently favor their own perceptions, discount or ignore their own biases, and assume the worst about people who do not share the same conclusions. Most will not be aware of these tendencies.
While naïve realism may be inconsequential when arguing whether a painting is objectively beautiful, this mindset is the opposite of what we expect of legal decision-makers. Indeed, criminal investigators must keep an open mind, be mindful of their biases, consider alternative theories, and not jump to conclusions. Juries are expected to presume innocence and reserve judgment until all evidence is presented. A prosecutors’ primary goal is to “seek justice,” not merely to convict, which requires them to remain open to considering new evidence even if it counsels against their current case theory.7 Critically, this sort of open-mindedness requires all participants in the legal system to be aware of their own thinking as they piece together and seek to understand the cases before them. The naïve realist way of thinking is the opposite of having an open mind. Once a conclusion is reached, the thinking, perceiving, considering, and examining of differing perspectives stops—and defending their viewpoint begins.
Naïve Realism and Force Investigations
World-renowned expert on thinking, Dr. Edward De Bono observed, “Perception is real even when it is not reality (the objective reality is only known in hindsight).” Former Special Forces and psychological operations professional, Dr. John Black, echoed Dr. Bono’s insight, “We have to constantly remind ourselves that a person’s reality (their understanding of the event) is constructed through their perceptions and experience of the event. It is subjective; it cannot be any other way. We expect that investigations, conducted with the benefit of hindsight, will discover objective facts and enjoy a certainty that was never perceived or understood by the involved officers.”
The risk of naïve realism is that investigators (or anyone evaluating the event) will confidently rely on their assessment of reality and will not seek to identify alternative views or construct the richest and fairest understanding of an event.
Naïve Realism and Video Evidence
Video evidence offers unique challenges in force investigations. While it can be compelling, video evidence is not an officer’s perspective or a proxy for the officer’s experience. Admitting that, investigators must guard against the influence of naïve realism—a challenge that video evidence can compound.
Consider that use-of-force decisions must be evaluated from the perspective of the officer who used force and without the benefit of hindsight. And yet, all case reviews are done in hindsight, leaving investigators to contend with two unavoidable realities.
First, knowing the outcome of an event can increase the confidence that the outcome was obvious and predictable. Of course, the officer involved did not have the benefit of knowing the outcome, and the force evaluator cannot “un-know” it.
Second, watching video evidence is a separate event from the use-of-force event. Evaluating the event from an air-conditioned office, without the threat of injury, and with the ability to replay, slow, or pause video can result in a high level of confidence. Despite this confidence, often born of naïve realism, hindsight bias, outcome bias, and certainty bias, the video review can never replicate the officer’s experience or the uncertainty they faced during the force encounter.
The influence of naïve realism is not limited to video evidence review and can creep into every aspect of force encounter reviews. We will continue to explore the impact of naïve realism and other biases in future articles. We will consider how these thinking tendencies can not only influence after-action investigations but how they can influence real-time use-of-force decisions—and how we might mitigate these risks.
- Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1996). Naïve realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In. T. Brown, E. Reed & E. Turiel (Eds.), Values and Knowledge (pgs. 103-135). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Feigenson, Neal, Visual Common Sense, Advance Praise for Law, Culture, and Visual Studies (2014).
- Granot, Y, et al., In the Eyes of the Law: Perception Versus Reality in Appraisals of Video Evidence, Psychology, Public Policy & Law, 2018, Vol. 24, No. 1, 93-014.
- See note 3, supra.
- See note 3, supra.
- ABA Model Rule 3-1.2(b).