Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Naïve Realism and Its Impact on Teamwork

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

For my last several articles in Tips for High-Impact Teamwork, we have been discussing how our brain processes external inputs to create reality as a storyline of cause and effect. We reviewed how our internal biases influence our interpretation of what is occurring in the external world (the “lens problem”) and how our focus or what we attend to in our environment leads individuals who experience the same event to process the event differently (the “neck problem”) (Epley, 2014). 

These are egocentric biases that we are rarely aware of in our day-to-day interactions with teammates, colleagues, friends and family. Because we are typically oblivious to their impact on our constructed reality, we frequently attribute differences or tensions with others as the other person’s failure to see reality “correctly.” We rarely attribute the differences to variations in what we focus on, what we emphasize and how who we are influences how we interpret our experiences.

Instead of framing the challenge as a difference in perspective from which to learn, our brain automatically frames it as “I am right, and they are wrong.” This is called naïve realism, and I will explore this crucial aspect of how our brain functions in this article.

The term “naïve realism” was coined by Lee Ross. He defines it as the “unshakeable conviction that he or she is somehow privy to an invariant, knowable, objective reality—a reality that others will also perceive faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational” (Ross, 1977). 

As we are unaware that the lens problem and neck problem are constantly playing a role in how we perceive the world around us, we mistakenly equate our construction of reality with objective and complete “truth.” So, when someone sees things differently than we do, the only rational explanation is that they are “wrong,” “have incomplete data,” and/or are “misinformed.” 

Instead of seeing differences, tensions or disagreements between our teammates as different perspectives and what Roger Schwarz calls “opportunities for learning,” we frame them as simplistic, dichotomous situations of “right vs. wrong” or even “good vs. evil.” Why shouldn’t we? After all, reality is so clear and unequivocal to us! 

Several months ago, I read Will Storr’s wonderful book The Science of Storytelling. I was trying to broaden my repertoire of books, and to my surprise and delight I found his book to be highly applicable to the science of teamwork! For example, he has a vivid description of naïve realism:

Nobody, however, is right about everything. Nevertheless, the storytelling brain wants to sell us the illusion that we are. Think about the people closest to you. There won’t be a soul among them with whom you’ve never disagreed. You know she’s slightly wrong about that, and he’s got that wrong, and don’t get her started on that. The further you travel from those you admire, the more wrong people become until the only conclusion you’re left with is that entire tranches of the human population are stupid, evil or insane. Which leaves you, the single living human who’s right about everything – the perfect point of light, clarity and genius who burns with godlike luminescence at the centre of the universe. Hang on, that can’t be right. You must be wrong about something. So you go on a hunt…”

We go on that proverbial hunt, yet fail to find much that we are wrong about because we remain unaware of how internal egocentric biases and naïve realism shape the constructed perceptions our brain tells us is reality. We remain convinced in our own mind—the same mind where naïve realism resides—that we really are a singular, magnificent light of godlike luminescence in a world that seems woefully misguided about truth and “the way things really are.”

Several months ago, I was conducting a teamwork workshop with a group of senior leaders at one of Cleveland’s major healthcare systems. After describing the neuropsychological basis of naïve realism and reading Storr’s extended quote, a department chair exclaimed, “Exactly! Someone finally understands me!” Of course, she was being facetious, but I think she precisely expressed how all of us feel about our “unique and special gifts” of perception and insight. 

Unfortunately, they are gifts that others just seem to lack, bless their hearts. Just like in Lake Wobegon, each of us just knows—is convinced in our own mind—that we are above average when it comes to perceiving our external world as reality and truth, especially during conflicts and disagreements. 

Am I exaggerating the impact of naïve realism on our interactions with colleagues and coworkers? Perhaps. But in the heat of a highly contentious conversation, I think my characterization may be more accurate than we would like to admit to ourselves. Yet I think that being mindful of the presence of our naïve realism can positively modulate how we engage with others, especially those in our teams and work settings. 

The next time you find yourself beginning to disagree with a colleague, starting to find fault with a coworker or sensing that your sympathetic nervous system is revving up for a conflict with a teammate, pause and consider the role naïve realism may be playing. Try to reframe the situation as merely a difference of perspectives about the external world, not an overly simplistic battle between right (you) versus wrong (them). 

In fact, our differences with each other are much more nuanced, and appreciating the role that the lens problem, the neck problem and naïve realism play in our brain’s construction of our perceptions can help us de-escalate tense moments with each other. Though I frequently fall short, I have found this self-controlled, emotionally sophisticated approach to be much more effective in my teamwork because it helps immunize me against the pervasive contagions of my implicit biases and naïve realism. 

Perhaps you could try applying this approach as you start the New Year! I enjoy getting emails from many of you, and I would like to hear how this reframing goes if you decide to try it out. 

As I wrap up this week’s article, I want to again remind you about the new Tuesday Connections opportunities our office is coordinating. Beginning next week, each Tuesday at noon we will offer various ways to connect with students, staff and faculty at CWRU and at other institutions. January’s schedule includes the following activities:

Jan. 9: Connect through Play

Come to the atrium of the Samson Pavilion to play various board games with others in our community. 

Jan. 16: Themed Conversations

Bring your lunch to the atrium of the Samson Pavilion as we discuss the important topic of wellness and how we can enhance our own wellness and the wellness of others. 

Jan. 23: Connecting Book Club

Join us in person or by Zoom for a stimulating discussion of The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. We will continue discussing this book during our February book club conversation Feb. 28.  

We hope these experiences help broaden your network and build stronger relationships. Please check out our Connections webpages for more details. The Huddle calendar also lists upcoming activities.


Epley N. Mindwise. Vintage Books, 2014.

Ross L. “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process.”

Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1977;10:173-220.

Storr W. The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better. Abrams Press, 2020.