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I’m Right. You’re Wrong: Naïve Realism in Force Reviews

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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. 

Next Steps

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Id. [] [] []
  3. Feigenson, Neal, Visual Common Sense, Advance Praise for Law, Culture, and Visual Studies (2014).  []
  4. 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. []
  5. See note 3, supra. []
  6. See note 3, supra. []
  7. ABA Model Rule 3-1.2(b). []
9 Responses
  1. eternity G. D. Moreau

    I personally think that there is a major opportunity for those in Criminal Justice fields to make expectations of interactions significantly more clear than they do. OFFICERS know what they may or may not expect in an interaction; as a civilian I do not have those luxuries.

    As an example, when I was much younger – probably 18-19 – I was pulled over in a rural area while driving a vehicle that had a sticky door and a window that didn’t roll down. MY perception was that it would be easier for the officer if I was already outside of my car, because I couldn’t roll down my window and having an open door while cars may pass by wasn’t logically safe [to my naive perception]. The officer yelled at me to get back in the car… it confused me, but made sense as I thought about it. I was given a no seatbelt ticket.

    A few years later, I was driving and pulled over for no license [- and because somebody will ask: I forgot that first ticket existed, and had a doc note to not wear my seatbelt. My intent had been to fight it – turns out I have ADHD and no short term memory… DMV had been sending notices to an address I never gave them, but it resulted in FTA, more fines, and as a single mom in bus-free America making min wage, I *HAD* to drive to work; and for the record, a judge apologized to me for having to fine me. He could see I was just trying to get to work to pay my fines, but they were bigger than I was – but THAT is the extent of my criminal record. FTA for a seatbelt, one DWLS 3rd, and I learned the game of getting my license back before court to reduce to Invalid Op License. It took a long, long time and a LOT of money to pay all of it].

    This giant officer with neck and arm muscles only steroids can make walked up to my Explorer and screamed at me to get out of the car. Not yelled. SCREAMED. *My* brain took a few seconds to process this as it was a different request than I had anticipated, on multiple levels… before my brain could even repeat his command to me, he yelled again for me to get out of the car, or he would use his taser. He yanked me out of the car, and threw me to the ground [as my two year old was screaming from the back seat] while holding his taser.

    Look, I know driving with no license is illegal. I am aware of the implications and what can happen and where fault lies in the event of an accident. But… if you’re going to ask somebody something and mess up their OODA Loop, and there is no eminent danger… you need to consider what could be actually happening in their brain.

    Not being aware even a little that I could be asked to get out of my car, required my brain a slightly longer response time than he expected. Not even that much longer, I probably needed no more than 3 more seconds and I would have been out of the car.

    I believe whole heartedly that there can be a significantly better way to have police and civilian interactions on many, many levels. But as a citizen, I strongly request that officers and departments align some of their behaviors and reactions a bit better.

    While hindsight and outside perception is skewed and biased with the lack of hormonal input and time flows vastly differently while adrenaline surges, the *real* change will happen through true department and community transparency.

  2. I have very personally been thinking this very line of thought my entire life but never pursued it in conversation because it was deeper than my verbal abilities to relay.

    They say that there is no such thing as individual thought just as there are multiple universes or repeating universes due to the largeness and expansiveness of the universe and that there are always duplications happening in everything, including thought.

    This article makes for a strong case in that defense.

  3. Mike Musengo

    “It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So”

    -Mark Tain

    I’ve always know that to be a quote from Mark Twain. I’ve repeated it and quoted it many times while giving instruction to academy recruits and students of FS courses..

    Well, not to my great surprise, upon further digging, “it just ain’t so!”
    (Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Kin Hubbard? Will Rogers? Anonymous?)

    Thought it was a fitting sentiment. Great article Tom. Looking forward to more of your work!

  4. Neil R.

    I am absolutely sure there are no absolutes!? As it pertains to UOF investigations, bias is certainly a factor. As it pertains to life in general, relativism is a self defeating mental exercise.

  5. PERSONAL BIAS is one of the foundations ( good or bad ) of human nature .
    Learning to overcome that bias is the foundation of professionalism. Unfortunately
    training to that level is a real challenge for both sides of the LE equation .

  6. TIM LOCKWOOD

    This is a fine article Tom Well reasoned and well written even considering the positive bias I have towards you and what you write

  7. Preston Taylor

    “Perception is reality”, I think this is very true for the officer as he or she is going through the use of force event. Great article

  8. Benjamin Adam Scholl

    This was a great read and a great reminder. As we watch bodycam footage with new recruits we always remind them of many of these facets. We look for learning opportunities, but always keep an open mind since we have the ability to pause, slow down, and evaluate based on our environment, not the officer.

    I am looking forward to the continued articles along this line!

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