Naïve realism and the neuroscience behind why we see things differently

Guest post by Roseline Akpa

Have you ever argued with someone about anything controversial – Coke vs Pepsi, presidential candidate A vs candidate B, to vaccinate or not to? You arm yourself with valid points, you try to be reasonable, but it yields nothing. Silently, you conclude: the person must be biased, unreasonable, lazy, misinformed, or even insane. 

Naïve realism is the mastermind of such scenarios. Naïve realism makes us believe that our view of the world is correct, obvious to everyone, and the only way the world can be seen. Therefore, every rational person should share our views. Naïve realism is an unsung but regular player in human conflicts. We are all naïve realists. 

How does naïve realism come about?

As humans, we make sense of the world in two ways: through pre-reflective meaning making that requires no conscious effort, and through conscious thought that requires effort. For example, identifying a stop sign is pre-reflective, whereas identifying all prime numbers between 0 and 100 involves conscious thought.

To identify a stop sign, we don’t consider the contours of each letter, the background color, and the pole’s shape, then consciously evaluate all inputs to make sense of the sign – all of that happens unconsciously. We look and we perceive a stop sign. Because this form of meaning making is effortless and quick, we conclude that what we perceive is reality. On the other hand, we acknowledge that our thoughts are self-created because we are aware of the effort, time and information we use to create them.

Our pre-reflective meaning making doesn’t always represent reality. A good way to illustrate this point is with the Kanizsa illusion

The Kanizsa illusion.

Above is an image of four pacman circles arranged at right angles. But most of us see a square that covers 4 circles. The square may seem whiter than its background and its sides appear demarcated. In reality, the square does not exist. 

This illusion shows how our brains construct what we perceive even if it’s not real. Our brains also construct our views of the world. These constructions feel objective rather than subjective. When we encounter another person’s views, it threatens our sense of reality. So, we become suspicious of or angry at the person.

That’s how the brain creates naïve realism.

The neuroscience of naïve realism: The ceeing model

Matthew Lieberman and colleagues have proposed the CEEing model to describe how the brain produces Coherent, Effortless, Experiences of the world and how these experiences lead to naïve realism. Coherent, Effortless, Experiences are pre-reflective (i.e., they occur outside conscious thought).

The model outlines Coherent, Effortless, Experiences as 3 types of seeing (CEEing):

  • Visual seeing—Seeing physical things, such as a stop sign.
  • Semantic seeing—Seeing meaning. Whatever prompts the statement, “I see what you mean”.
  • Psychological seeing—Seeing the intention behind an action, such as seeing traffic police gesturing you to stop.
Gestalt Cortex.

The CEEing model has four propositions:

  1. CEEing occurs primarily in the gestalt cortex, a brain region that encompasses areas responsible for sight, hearing and touch. 
  2. Visual, semantic and psychological forms of CEEing are associated with the gestalt cortex.
  3. People have different views because CEEing integrates sensory and non-sensory inputs.
    When sensory inputs are ambiguous, absent or incomplete, non-sensory inputs (such as expectations, motivations, memories, schemas, stereotypes, associations, beliefs, culture, and identity) have more influence on people’s views. 
  4. CEEing inhibits alternative perspectives and inputs that help us see things differently. CEEing produces one perspective and terminates all inputs that could lead to other perspectives so we don’t even know such inputs exist. We can’t see two things at once and we can’t second guess what we’ve seen. Second guessing is a product of thinking and not CEEing.

Naïve realism in politics

Visual seeing is not a problem. Everyone’s brain processes visual inputs in the same way. Once the processing is complete, our brains present a picture that we all agree on. For example, if we’re shown a pen, we all agree that it’s a pen, not a spoon.

But with semantic and psychological seeing, where sensory inputs can be ambiguous, we draw different pictures because our non-sensory inputs influence us. 

In a study by Solomon Asch, participants interpreted the statement, “I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical”, differently depending on whether they thought the message was from Thomas Jefferson or Vladmir Lenin. The literal meaning of the sentence did not matter. Who said it did. 

The statement is ambiguous. So, its perceived meaning was influenced by who said it. This study shows how it’s possible that we can hear the same political speech or see the same news, and have different perceptions.

What makes us naïve realists?

We construct what we CEE. However, CEEing feels like we’re experiencing reality and not constructing it. Once we CEE, we are less likely to take other perspectives. It’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we believe other perspectives shouldn’t exist. After all, we’re just CEEing things as they are.

We don’t question the things we CEE. The question of whether what we see is real or not never arises. It’s because the brain doesn’t leave us conscious cues that it constructs reality. So we don’t feel the need to evaluate our CEEing. When sensory inputs are ambiguous, we can’t know what memories, schemas, ideologies or stereotypes our brains use to create our views. We’re not aware that it’s how the brain CEEs.

We can’t see alternatives. Once the brain produces what we CEE, it inhibits all other possible interpretations so we CEE one thing. 

We CEE one thing. We use the gestalt cortex to identify a pen as just one thing – a pen. The same gestalt cortex evolved to identify the meaning of a political speech. And the same way the gestalt cortex constructs one view of the pen, it constructs one view of a political speech. Both views feel like reality. 

The brain working in this way is evolutionarily important: imagine if humans perceive roaring lions as friendly and threatening at the same time. How would we act? How would we survive? In modern times, we have to make sense of ideas that are more ambiguous than roaring lions, so we fall prey to naïve realism.

Solving conflicts through awareness of naïve realism

One study by Nasie and colleagues found that participants were open to the perspectives of their rivals when they were informed about naïve realism. The context of this study was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The study was carried out on Jewish and Palestinian Israelis.

Naïve realism was explained to some participants through a passage. Other participants (the control group) read a neutral passage. Then, all participants read passages describing the Jewish and Palestinian perspectives of the conflict, and rated how much they agreed with each perspective. 

Learning about naïve realism made participants open to the perspectives of their rivals (i.e., Jewish Israelis were open to Palestinian Israeli perspectives and Palestinian Israelis to Jewish Israelis’). This openness was stronger in hawkish participants (i.e., those with strong ideologies) than dovish participants (i.e., those already open to other perspectives).

Naïve realism is the fallout of CEEing we all have to live with. However, we could become better naïve realists when we: 

  • Understand that our brains construct reality
  • Accept that other people might have different views 
  • Refrain from concluding that those who don’t share our views are biased, unreasonable, misinformed, or abnormal

The next time you argue with someone about Coke vs. Pepsi, your preferred candidate, or policy, remember you are a naïve realist.


Lieberman, M. D. (2022). Seeing minds, matter, and meaning: The CEEing model of pre-reflective subjective construal. Psychological Review, 129(4), 830–872.

Nasie, M., Bar-Tal, D., Pliskin, R., Nahhas, E., & Halperin, E. (2014). Overcoming the barrier of narrative adherence in conflicts through awareness of the psychological bias of naïve realism. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1543–1556.

Roseline is a freelance health writer and neuroscience lover. She is a human physiologist with interest in health tech, holistic health and mental health. Connect with her on LinkedIn.