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Latticework of Mental Models: Naive Realism

Let me start by inviting you to have an intellectual and emotional experience. Take a few seconds and stare at the picture below.

Image-1 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

Observe closely. What do you see?

You’d probably see a woman who is looking away from you. You may notice that she is wearing a necklace. She seems to have high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and a pointy nose.

Now I ask you to take your eyes off her and focus on the second picture below –

Image-2 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

What do you see now? Another woman? What does she look like? How old do you think she is? What is she wearing? In what kind of roles do you see her?

You probably would describe this second woman as beautiful as the first one. You might guess that she is about 25 years old and fashionable. In fact, the second image looks like a lower resolution version of the first image.

But what if I claim that this picture is of a woman in her 60’s or 70’s who looks sad, has a huge nose, and is certainly not a model? She is someone you probably would help cross the street.

I am sure you would disagree with me. “How can you mistake an attractive young woman for an old lady? You should get your eyes checked.”, you might want to say.

But I insist that you look at the picture again. Can you see the old woman? Keep trying if you cannot. Do you see her big hook nose? Her shawl?

If we were sitting face to face, we could discuss the picture. You could describe what you see, and I could point out to you what I see. Maybe we could use a pencil to trace the facial features.

Since we don’t have the luxury of face to face discussion, please scroll down a bit to the third picture I have included here. Study this third image and then look again at the second picture above. Do you see the old woman now? It is important that you see her before you continue.

My point is that when someone does not agree with our views or observations, we jump to the conclusion that the other person is wrong. We figure he must be uninformed, irrational or simply biased. We assume that other reasonable people would see things the same way we do. And if they disagree with us, they obviously aren’t seeing clearly.

In social psychology, this tendency is known as Naive Realism. Lee Ross, a social psychologist, coined this term in the 1990s. Naive Realism is the false belief that we always see the world without bias or error, as it truly is. It is a powerful illusion.

Whenever we meet someone with contradictory views, we instinctively label his beliefs as delusional, rather than realising that perhaps we’re the ones who could learn something.

Reminds me of this song from Madonna from her Album Frozen –

You only see what your eyes want to see,
How can life be what you want it to be
You’re frozen,
When your heart’s not open.

Introspecting our own thoughts creates a belief that our judg­ments are unbiased and more independent than those of others. But we have no way of stepping into the minds of others and analyze what they are really thinking.

Naive realism presupposes two things –

  1. People who are open-minded and fair, must come to a common agreement with a reasonable opinion.
  2. Any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren’t, I wouldn’t hold it.

How many times has it happened that you just wanted your opponents to sit down and listen to you so that you could tell them how things really are? If you could do this, they would agree with you. And if they don’t then they must be biased, right?

That, my friend, is Naive Realism.

Image-3 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

Dealing with a contradictory opinion makes us uncomfortable and our brain takes the most convenient path to resolve this discomfort, i.e., it assumes that the other person has been brainwashed.

We don’t accept the possibility that the contradiction is the result of other individual being exposed to a different set of information.

In the young/old lady example, people who see the old lady’s image (image-3) first, see an old lady in the second picture (image-2) also. And those who are shown the portrait of young lady (image-1) first, see the same young lady in the second photo (image-2)

Even when we take a tolerant view of those who disagree with us, writes Tim Harford, “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.”

What’s Real?

It is hard to combat naive realism because the illusion – we see the world objectively – is such a powerful one. Reality is merely an illusion, quipped Albert Einstein, “albeit a very persistent one.”

Remember the famous conversation between Morpheus and Neo in the movie The Matrix. It’s my favourite.

Neo: This isn’t real.
Morpheus: What is real? How do you define “real”? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste, and see then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, in their book Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, write –

The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting de­lusion that we, personally, do not have any. In a sense…people uninten­tionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions. Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and un­biased.

Listeners And Tappers

Remember the listeners and tappers problem? We discussed it in one of our mental model posts. Listeners and tappers problem is based on an experiment conducted at Stanford University.

They designed a simple game in which participants were assigned one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, the tappers were asked to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.

What’s interesting is that listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why so?

When tappers tap, they hear the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself. Tap out “Happy Birthday To You.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t understand that rhythm. To them, it mostly sounds like a bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, the tappers, on the other hand, are puzzled looking at blank faces of listeners and their inability to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? Have those listeners gone deaf? Poor tappers don’t realize that they are behaving like naive realists.

The truth is that the tappers are not alone. We all have biases that shape our worldview.

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, writes –

The last one hundred years of research suggest that you, and everyone else, still believe in a form of naive realism. You still believe that although your inputs may not be perfect, once you get to thinking and feeling, those thoughts and feelings are reliable and predictable. We now know that there is no way you can ever know an “objective” reality, and we know that you can never know how much of subjective reality is a fabrication, because you never experience anything other than the output of your mind. Everything that’s ever happened to you has happened inside your skull.

In Investing

When you buy a stock, the assumption is that you know something which the seller is missing. Buying, then, isn’t just an act of arrogance, but it also includes the possibility of naive realism.

You are behaving as if the person who is selling you the stock is either misinformed or irrational. Don’t forget that the other person is probably making the same assumptions about you. And unlike the old/young lady problem, the possibility of both the buyer and seller of stock being simultaneously right is close to zero.

So the lesson for investors is this – Before making any investment decision, ask yourself – “Am I being a naive realist? What could be the possible circumstances under which the seller could be right?” That opens up your mind (or de-freezes your heart as Madonna would like to say). And it can save you from many avoidable blunders.


It is naive to think that others will change their mind when you show them the facts because when they do the same, it will not sway your opinion either.

So before you freeze your opinions to conclusions, factor in the probability of the other person being right and you being wrong. Goes without saying that both of you could be wrong.

Shane Parrish, the author of Farnam Street Blog, writes

We’re happy to learn about biases, we even apply this knowledge to better predict the behavior of others. However, when it comes to ourselves, we’re unmoved. You probably think you’re an above average driver. Now I can shake you and tell you that most people have an inflated view of themselves. I can tell you that you’re biased. I can tell you to be realistic. And you’re still going to look at me and say “Other people may be biased but I really am an above average driver.

“Have you ever noticed when you are driving,” the stand-up comedian George Carlin observed, “that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

I don’t know about you but the lizard brain inside my skull agrees with Carlin. 🙂

Thanks for reading.

PS: The young/old lady example comes from Stephen Covey’s highly acclaimed book – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey used the example to explain the idea of Paradigm Shift but I found the example very relevant in the context of Naive Realism too.

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About the Author

Anshul Khare worked for 12+ years as a Software Architect. He is an avid learner and enjoys reading about human behaviour and multidisciplinary thinking. You can connect with Anshul on Twitter.


  1. Sriram Thirumalai says:

    Wonderful article. Also happens during a conversation. Sometimes, we listen in order to reply. Not to truly understand what the other person is saying( happens especially if one has an opposite view point).
    I really liked the last part about driving. So true.

  2. Gulshan Bajaj says:

    Very true!

    It is really very difficult to listen to other party for understanding. Most of the time, we are listening to reply. We even stop listening, when we get ready with our reply.

    Understanding of this bias will definitely aid to defensive investing.

    Hats off to you!

  3. Jitendra Soni says:

    Entire article is well connected, each word have its own worth.
    I think i m the most sufferer of this bias.

    Thanx for sharing great knowledge.

    Jitendra soni

  4. Thanks Anshul for this excellent piece!

  5. Sonu Patel says:

    All it adds to my next behavior to any body.

  6. Very well written and articulate. For me it was like looking into a mirror of self introspection. Thank you for posting posts like this. Looking forwards to the next one.

  7. The article is brilliant! But shouldn’t you give credit to Stephen Covey from whose book the image of old/ young lady is being taken? #justasking

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Hi Shailesh.

      Thanks for pointing it out. It was a blunder on my side. I’ve added the appropriate credits/acknowledgment in the post.


  8. ankur bhatia says:

    Good article but isn’t some bias or inflated self view part of our survival mechanism. Can this mindset lead to slowed decision making? How can we balance between realistic and biased opinion? We can never be completely realistic or maybe if we are we may not act on anything?

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Hi Ankur,

      Your question is very valid. I would recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (If you haven’t read it already)

      All behavioural biases emanate from the survival mechanism that nature has built into our brains. We need to single out the high stake situations and switch to this slow mode of decision making (Kahneman calls it System 2) for those crucial decisions.


  9. Asif Ali Mugloo says:

    Thanks for the insight😊

  10. inox capitals says:

    The article is brilliant…well written article.

  11. In the end, you see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear and you care a damn about what others see or hear. Period…


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