Transcript: Interview with Lee Ross from Episode 062

This is the interview with Lee Ross from episode 062 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.


Lee Ross

Lee Ross was one of the first psychologists to study naive realism, and he writes about it in a new his book ,co-written with Tom Gilovitch, titled The Wisest One in the Room. In the original paper, co-written with Andrew Ward in 1995, the two scientists concluded that naive realism leads people to approach political arguments with the confidence that “rational open-minded discourse” will naturally lead to a rapid narrowing of disagreement, but that confidence is usually short-lived.


David: Lee, in your book, you pointed something out that has really stuck with me ever since I read it. And that is, you predict that I probably think of myself as being as liberal as is reasonable, and that people to my left politically speaking are probably too idealistic. And that people to my right are probably too callus and too selfish. And that – then therefore, puts me right in the sweet spot. A spot where I see myself as being as reasonable and as rational as possible. How were you so able to accurately predict what I was thinking in your book?

Lee: Well, there’s a way in which it necessarily has to be true. If you thought that it was sensible to be more idealistic then you are now, you’d be more idealistic. And if you thought it was reasonable, if you thought it was what was demanded by political realities – to be more conservative. You’d be more conservative. So it’s – it was a no brainer. It actually started out, interestingly enough, with a trick I used to do in class. I used to ask people to tell me the name of an animal, their favorite color, and their horoscope sign. And then I would tell them their political position.

David: How does that work?

Lee: Well the same way. I mean, I’d say – to them. “Well, you’re as liberal as you think it’s reasonable to be–”

David: Oh okay.

Lee: “Given the state of the world – people are more liberal than you are, or naive. They don’t understand how the world really works. They are idealistic, but simplistic. And people to the right, well, they’re – they’re too conservative. They’re not sufficiently compassionate. They may even be crypto-fascists.”

David: Right. It reminds me of the Forer effect. Which is, you can give people 2 statements. One that’s kind of true, and one that– They are just slightly separate from one another, and people tend to pick and choose the parts that work. But this is much more accurate. Because everything is true. And it’s – I love this, because– What – if you – as you say in the book. If you were more attuned– If you thought people to the left were more attuned to reality. Or people on the right were more attuned to reality. You would shift your way over there. And you point out in the book that–

Lee: They’d already be there.

David: You’d already be there. And it, for me, it helped me kind of understand that – there is a– If we look at it as a spectrum and with 2 extremes. That we, because of our life experiences, because of the way that our brain has been put together over time. Not just by our biology, but also our cultural influences. That we sort of have found – each one of us has found this groove, this slot within that spectrum that feels right. And when we see something that is outside of – one way or the other, it becomes too bad. We say in the book that it’s music. It can be – is too loud. Or food is too spicy. But whenever you use that word 2 x, 2 whatever. 2 is really loaded. And if you – it’s like “could you sort of elaborate on why that – thinking something is too much one way or the other, says more about yourself and the thing that is being observed.

Lee: Well of course, it does say something about yourself. I think it’s important to clarify that we don’t think that we’re just kind of passive recorders of the world. We recognize that the way we see things has been influenced by our experience, by our education. Maybe even by our culture. But we think that, in our own case, those sources of influence are a source of enlightenment. They make us understand how things really are. But in the case of other people with different experiences and different backgrounds. We think that they are understandably biased by those. We may even believe that if we were in their shoes, we would think and act and see things the way they do. But that doesn’t mean we think they’d be right. We just think we’d be subject to the same biases that they are. We think that we’re not the ones. We are free of biases, and that the influences on us are not biases – they’re sources of wisdom or enlightenment.

David: Yeah this is probably the most sort of – this is the thing that really has shook me the most in thinking about this. And is that – it seems to be that you’re saying that we rec– Whenever someone– We believe that the best thing in the world probably is to be fully enlightened or something to that effect. And the worst thing in the world would be to be fully biased. Yet, a lot of your research, and a lot of research that you discuss in the book tells us that – depending on your – on where you’re sitting ideologically, any experience that a person has, a life experience. Can be looked upon as being a bias in some regards or enlightenment in other situations. Like you bring up Dick Cheney’s stance on same sex right– Gay rights, same sex marriage – that sort of thing. And some people, based off their ideological position, will see him as being biased because of his daughter. And other people will see him as being enlightened because of his daughter.

Lee: That’s right.

David: And either way, the man has just simply had a lived experience that has informed his views. But it makes it feel like there’s no– There is no objective position. And so, people who agree with you, or who share your demographics – you see them as being rewarded by experience with enlightenment. And people who disagree with you are polluted by experience with bias. And so, and you even talk about in the book that the more objective a news source becomes, the more biased it seems to both sides of the political spectrum.

Lee: Inevitably, if I think the world’s black, and you think it’s white, we’re both going to think someone who says it’s grey, it’s complicated, there’s some black and there’s some white. We’re both going to think that that person isn’t seeing things the way they really are? That they’re taking the other side’s exaggerations and irrelevant observations – and giving them just as much weight as our sound reasoning and trenchant examples. And so, that becomes inevitable. But David, I think really to understand naive realism, we have to take a step back. I know in the book, in The Wisest One In The Room, we start out with a quotation from Einstein. Which says, “Reality is an illusion.” I think he actually may have said, “Reality of course is an illusion.” And what that means is, from the viewpoint of a physicist – what our experience of the world is, is the particular kind of interaction between the stuff we’re made of and the stuff that’s out there. Both of which are incredibly unknowably complex. And so, the things we experience are completely a product of what we’re made of. The world looks red because of the kinds of eyes we have. We see solid objects, we perceive time and all of that stuff – because of the kind of meat that we’re making.

David: Yeah, right, right.

Lee: And I like – there’s an example in the book we use that I like. Where people often will talk about their dog being color blind. And they don’t ever say, “Well my dog sees the world the way it is. I have these particular lenses, which make me see it – see colors. But let me tell you, these dogs really smell the world the way it really is – and I walk around being kind of odor blind.”

David: Right, right yeah. The neuroscientist, David Eagleman – he talks in his lectures about the umwelt, which is sort of a – it’s the German word for like the– The totality of subjective experience from one creature to the next.

Lee: Yeah, the world view literally.

David: Yeah, so like – and the way he uses it is to think of like a tick or a fish or a bullfrog. Are going to – they’re all interacting with some form of objective reality. But their subjective realities are so different from each other and from our own. Who can say who is closest to the most accurate portrayal of that objective reality in their brains. And–

Lee: Well I think Einstein is saying something more than that. He’s saying, “There is no objective reality, or at least no objective reality in terms of anyone’s perception of it. Because what we perceive – even – as I said, the world of solid objects with 3 dimensions, a world with colors and all those things. Are a product of the particular kinds of receptors that we have. And that’s true for every creature on earth.

David: Right.

Lee: And so, maybe there’s something objective about saying the world is made up of vibrating strings of infinitesimally small size, that acquire mass because of the interaction with particular kinds of fields. Which can only be understood in mathematical equations. I mean that to a physicist is the closest you get to reality. But for us, there’s no choice but to say that the world – as we perceive it – is the world that we must interact with. And we take comfort from the fact that in almost all important ways, other human beings share – have the same kind of receptors that we do. So that while I emphasize the ways in which we disagree about politics and the kinds of attributions we make, we rely every day on the fact that when I see an oak tree and I point to it, and I say, “That’s an oak tree.” You’ll say, “Yep, that’s an oak tree.” And when I say, “It has those things underneath it called acorns.” You’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right.” So most of the time, the way in which we construct the world, and the fact that we construct it through the same cognitive and perceptual machinery is what makes social life possible. It’s necessary. What we’re writing about when we talk about social conflict and social problems, are the particular factors that make us see particular kinds of objects and events differently from each other.

David: Right. What you’re talking about reminds me – there’s this great Bertrand Russell quote. He said that, “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really – if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. And I–

Lee: Yeah.

David: I’ve always enjoyed that.

Lee: Well actually I think that’s exactly what Einstein is saying as well.

David: So–

Lee: He would just say you’re experiencing the impact of the stuff that the stone is made of on the stuff that you’re made of.

David: Right. And it seems like – since we’re all trying to agree upon what – how our meat stuff is interacting with all these other things out there, and what we are trying to agree is happening, or what is – what it’s representing. We were talking about apples and pears and tables and cats and dogs. And it seems pretty easy, but as we – as it scales up and we get into discussions of what is morally correct or what is the ethical stance or how should we operate a good society. That’s when it starts to become a lot more complicated as to what is the– What is the accurate true objective informed normal place? And that’s sort of what naive realism is, right? Could you – for people who may have never heard of it before, what is sort of your – give us a tour of what naive realism is. It’s definition and how it works and how we see it every day.

Lee: Well, naive realism is the conviction that we see the world in an objective, essentially unmedian way. That is to say that there’s a 1 to 1 relationship between our experience of the world and what the world really is. Because of that, we expect other reasonable people to agree with us. To share our view. And we think that if they don’t share our view, the thing to be understood and explained is what it is about them that’s making them not see the world the way it really is. Or, in other words, the way we see it. And in different contexts, we come up with different explanations. Sometimes we think they’re ignorant, so they need education and our instruction to see things correctly. Sometimes we think they’re biased by self-interest. They can’t afford to understand how the world really is. Sometimes we may see it as a product of their culture or their education, or their youth or their senility or whatever. But what continues to be the case, is that we believe that we are uniquely objective. We may even realize that we change our views sometimes. But when we realize we’ve changed our views, we have the conviction that we used to see things inaccurately, non-objectively, and now we’ve arrived at the point where we see things objectively and wisely.

David: And it’s similar to the idea that we were talking about earlier. Where you’re on the road, and the person going fast is too fast. The person going slower than you is too slow. In your sort of understanding of your own perception of reality, you start to see that people who are– You see the world differently. Or not that they see it differently, that they just see it incorrectly.

Lee: Right.

David: And this is–

Lee: Non objectively.

David: Right. But you, you have a perfect objective understanding of everything. And it’s – why is it so hard to see that in yourself, but so easy to see that in other people?

Lee: Well, my former student, who’s now a professor at Princeton, Emily Cronin refers to the bias – to the bias blind spot. Which is a metaphor I like, that when you’re looking up at the world, almost all objects register on your retina except for the ones that this one blind spot – namely where the optic nerve is. But in this case, the blind spot in your perception of the world is with regard to yourself. And I think that’s a perfect metaphor. Let me say that this tendency to think that you see things objectively, most of the time is harmless or even helpful. We wouldn’t want to go through life constantly contemplating what is the nature of matter and energy and all that stuff. The world is as it’s given, with objects that we relate to. When you and I talk about an oak tree, we agree about what an oak tree is. The problem is, that a lot of the constructs that you and I respond to are more ambiguous, are more socially and culturally constructed. So we may agree on what an oak tree is. And the fact that we each think we’re seeing an oak tree as it really is – is not only harmless, it’s constructive. We know what to do with it. But when you and I say – talk about a bigot, we may have very different notions of what a bigot is. And, but it feels to us like labeling a bigot as a bigot is the same as labeling an oak tree as an oak tree. When of course it’s very different. One dependent a great deal more on the particular, unique experiences we have as a human being in the world – rather than the shared perceptual apparatus that almost all of us have when we perceive the world.

David: See, one of the things that really sticks out to me in naive realism is that when you– When you’re unaware that you’re doing this, you start to think- When you get into an argument with someone, one of the knee-jerk reactions – I’ve done this, I’ve seen other people do this. I see this all the time, especially on social media. Is, since you believe that your opinions and your perceptions and your ideas and your beliefs and your ideology and all that stuff came to you after some sort of careful contemplation. And that you see the world as it really is, and therefore you’re making an accurate estimation of how it works. Since you believe that, you think that – when someone disagrees with you, the way that you can– You see them as broken, and they can be fixed. And the way you fix them is simply put the same facts that you’ve seen in front of them, and have them look at them. And they will–

Lee: Yeah.

David: There’s no other way. As long as you – if you could just crack open their head and pour a bucket of facts in there. And oftentimes, people do this by just Googling a bunch of stuff and then copy pasting links right over into the person’s feed or whatever or their email. Then the assumption is that, as long as they’re a reasonable and intelligent and rational person, they’ll look at those facts, and they will magically become completely in line with your estimation of how things work. And what is the big failure in that?

Lee: Let me give you a real world example. I do a fair amount of conflict resolution work, promoting dialogue between groups in conflict in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East with Israelis and Palestinians. And well-meaning people in these situations are actually quite interested in meeting with the other side. Obviously the hardliners and the extremists aren’t. But there’s always lots of people who really want to meet with other people. Lots of Israelis who want to meet with Palestinians, and vice versa. And why do they want to meet? Because they want to explain to the other side how things really are. Let me tell – and they think that if they do that, the other person will become easier to deal with in future. And if not, it proves that they’re not objective, that 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 I’m biased, and 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 single individual tell me that.

David: Wow.

Lee: They may say, “I want to know how they think so I can empathize or appreciate.” But they never think that the purpose of meeting with the other side is to have a more rational view. They sometimes think that when they know all the facts that the other side have – their own view might change. But they think that they way it’ll change will always still leave them being objective and reasonable. And if the other person at that point agrees with them, then the other person’s reasonable. If at that point the other party doesn’t agree with them, well it’s a sign that the other party is seeing the world through the lens of their self-interest, or their cultural history. Again, that it’s something about them. So, the point about naive realism is particularly important when we examine political differences and conflict between individuals and groups. In America, we might say between the Red staters and the Blue staters. In the Middle East of course, it’s between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.

David: So, okay – so a couple of questions come up when I, when we talk about this, when we think about this. And one is when– So, one of the strange things about seeing the world this way is to see that – if someone disagrees with you, you see that as because of some sort of– If you think that they have actually seen the same facts as you have, and they have looked at them about as long as you have – and they still feel the same way, you believe that they’ve been distorted somehow. That they’re being influenced, or corrupted, or polluted, or poisoned by self-interest, or a – ideology, or they’ve been persuaded, or something like that. I’m wondering why you think it is that our default position isn’t to try to become more correct, or to try to update our priors. Why do we instead try to force others to come into line with our own reasoning, instead of trying to bare it out where our reasoning may be misguided?

Lee: Well of course, our views are not static. They do change, and they change as a function of the way we take in new facts. The facts we’re exposed to, the way we interpret those facts. But at each stage in that process, we think that our current views are rational ones. So in the famous statement that, “If I’m not a socialist at 20, I have no compassion – I haven’t got a heart. And if I’m still a socialist at 30 or 40, whatever the year is – I haven’t got a brain, I lack common sense.” Well the person who’s making that statement is well aware that they’ve changed their view as a result of additional experience and new facts. But they think that the 40 year old now is rational, and the 20 year old was less rational. They never entertained the possibility that – at 20 I saw the world accurately, but now that I’m 40, that I have a wife and kids, I’m inflicted with credit card debt, and bourgeois values – I no longer see things the way they really are.

David: Now so it sort of, it seems to me that no matter where we are in the timeline of our short existence, we think that we are at the most – we almost– I think that Daniel Gilbert has a thing called the end of history illusion, where we think that we have reached the ultimate version of ourselves, and we will never get more accurate than where we are now. What do you think is going on with the – this very rosy view of our own estimation of what is, and what is not right, and correct, and moral, and ethical?

Lee: Well, that’s an interesting question, which I think I now answer more wisely than I would have answered it when I was 20 years old. So, when I was 20 years old, I saw the unfolding of history as a kind of linear project. The world evolves in the direction of more enlightenment, more appreciation of individualistic and democratic values, more appreciative of the need for liberty – and all these things. In other words, to think that history unfolds in a kind of continuing process to an ever better, more rational, gentler world. But if you’ve been around for a while, you start to see history more in yin and yang terms, more like a pendulum. More as a case of where we lurch in one direction, and we kind of over-correct, and then we lurch back in a different direction. And so, we think of where we are not necessarily as the endpoint of enlightenment, but as having struck the right balance.

David: Which is, I’ve said this before, like the pursuit of dis-confirmation of your assumptions is such a– In many arenas – a much richer way to like explore the world, and it’s something you don’t necessarily naturally do. It’s why science is so – such a great tool.

Lee: Yeah.

David: That we had to invent a tool so that we could do that, instead of depending on our default way of doing things, which is try to confirm all of our hypotheses. And to not even see that they’re our hypotheses. We draw conclusions, and we think that we’re actually forming a hypothesis when it’s really a conclusion. I–

Lee: Danny Kahneman, I think whose work I’m sure you know, has a great quotation. He says, “Every time a hypothesis fails, I gain 15 IQ points.”

David: Oh, that’s fantastic, because the– I’ve had, whenever I do lectures, I always try to – I show people. I try to get people to commit confirmation bias in person, and they always do every time. And they’re always astonished at how easy it is to produce that. And I try to explain to everyone, if you think of science not as an institution, but as a simple tool – a thinking tool that we built, we made. It really – it becomes evident how important it is to really try to find the null hypothesis to whatever it is you believe, and see if you can argue for it. And it is odd to me that it’s not our – that it’s not the way we naturally approach our understanding of natural forces.

Lee: If you think about it, one of our famous confirmation studies, one for which – done with Charlie Lord and Mark Lepper, I think you know the study. We showed people who supported capital punishment, and people who opposed capital punishment – the results of two studies. One of which seemed to support their views, one of which opposed their views. And we systematically varied what methodology we said was used for the 2 studies. And so what we found is that people thought that the study that supported their beliefs was the better done–

David: Right.

Lee: More coherent study than the study that opposed them. And because of that, having read two studies, which were equally reasonable, both sides became more convinced of their views. So that’s an interesting finding. But if you think about it, there’s nothing wrong or irrational about giving weight to your prior beliefs, when you process information about the world. We couldn’t make sense of it otherwise. There’s someone across the room has a kind of ambiguous expression on their face when they look at you, and you don’t know whether they’re smiling or frowning. If it’s a friend, you should assume they’re smiling. If it’s an enemy, you should assume they’re frowning. You may be wrong, and that may get in the way of new learning, but on average it will serve you well. The point about the scientific method is it doesn’t let you do that. The scientific method says, “You can look at data in as biased a way as you want.” That’s how you make sense of the world using your understanding and intuition. What you can’t do is process information in the light of your beliefs, and then test those beliefs with the information you’ve just processed. That is what the strength of the scientific method is. It makes us dumb, in the sense that we’re not allowed to take advantage of our ability to explain away counterexamples, and things like that. It makes us dumb in a way about that, but it saves us from confirmation bias, and that is the most important contribution of the scientific method.

David: It seems like, I keep hearing this throughout your message – both in the book and here in this conversation. That if you go to, if you approach somebody whose views are different from your own, with the goal of bringing them over to your side – you’re going to be disappointed, and there’s going to be conflict. But if you instead have the approach that I’m going to, I’m trying–I’m hoping that this person will change my views, that I will grow as a person, that this is an opportunity for me to sort of feel out the shape of my own ignorance, then you will, you’re almost guaranteed to get where you’re looking for, if you took that approach.

Lee: Let me tell you a great Abe Lincoln quote that we had in the book. Lincoln says, famously said, “I don’t like that man. I’m going to try to get to know him better.”

David: That’s great! This is all such great stuff, and I have to let you go I know, but before you go, what – and I forgot to ask this, but, “What, if anything can we do to – as individuals, or as a society, to mitigate the negative effects that come around because of our innate naive realism?”

Lee: Well, I think you, as a starting point, it’s very helpful to just be exposed to cases where people were able to step outside it. We gave one example in the book that I liked a lot, which was the speech that Frederick Douglass gave at the time at the time a monument to Abraham Lincoln was being dedicated. And Douglass, and I’ll paraphrase, because I don’t have the quote in front of me, but Douglass essentially said, “Viewed from genuine abolitionist ground,”, namely as an abolitionist and a political activist, said, “Mr. President Lincoln was in constant, slow, hesitant, etc. etc,” describing it that way. And then he goes on and says, “But given the political forces he had to deal with, and given his own background, it’s hard to imagine him doing otherwise,”, and he concludes by saying, “History or providence, viewed from that viewpoint, viewed through the eyes of history and providence, Lincoln was swift and sure and we could not have been sent a better president to bring about the changes we brought about. “So that capacity to say, “Here’s how I see the world. But let me tell you ways in which I can best appreciate the ways in which the other person sees the world.” That exercise is always a useful one. We often use metaphors, “Walk in the other shoes,” “I wear their glasses” – I don’t like those, what I call “footwear and eyeglass” metaphors, because I don’t think they work. The whole point about naïve realism is we can’t do that. But what we can do is recognize the authenticity of the other person. That they are behaving in accord with their own values, that are authentic, that in many ways, despite the disagreements we might have about policy, if we spent some time talking to them we might uncover really important agreements. Agreements about what they want the world to look like. In Ireland when I’ve done dialog work, if we have unionists and nationalists, and we ask them, “What policies would they like to see in future?” Of course they disagree vehemently. When we say to them, “What would you like your community to look like?”, they become really quite similar in what they want their communities to look like. When we ask them, “What do you want life to be like for you and your family?”, then there’s no difference between them. And so exercises that allow you to identify ways in which, notwithstanding your disagreements, you share fundamental values – that is a terrifically valuable experience to have.

David: You do some amazing stuff, and I urge everyone to just find everything written by Lee Ross, and especially get this book, and become as wise as you can possibly be. Instead of trying to be right, try to be wise. I really appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you so much.

Lee: My pleasure, David. I hope we can continue the conversation informally in other venues.

David: Lee Ross’ new book is, The Wisest One In The Room. I have 3 copies to give away. To learn more, head to the You Are Not So Smart Facebook page.