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Psychology and the Construction of Reality: Challenges to Naive Realism

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is Managing Editor for Novellas & Serials at LVP Publishers.


What Is Naive Realism?

Naive realism, also called direct realism, common-sense realism, or non-conceptual realism, is one of the founding theories which discusses our perception of the world around us. The theory of naive realism says that there is an actual physical reality that exists, and our senses provide us with the direct awareness of this reality. Reality is believed to be separate from our interpretations of what we perceive. Put another way, intuitions or direct perception can present us with empirical objects without any application of concepts in the form of interpretation (Gomes, 2013).

For example, if I see a tree in front of me with green leaves, that is because there is a tree in front of me with green leaves. I determine it is beautiful because it is straight and healthy and the leaves are alive and bright green, the objective definition of beauty for a tree.

This is in contrast to an illusory experience where I see a tree in front of me with green leaves, although the tree in front of me has orange, red, and yellow leaves with no green leaves to be seen. In this case, the reason the tree looks to me like it has green leaves isn't that I see their "greeness." They don't have any "greeness" for me to see.

According to naïve realism, the ultimate psychological explanation of perception of veridical or truthful experience is that the person perceives things in their environment (e.g., a tree) and some of their properties (e.g., its "greeness", straightness, and healthiness). Not all naïve realists reject the idea that veridical experience involves the person representing her environment as being a certain way. However, the fundamental belief on which the view is based denies that veridical experience is fundamentally the result of representation.

This theory suggests that our perceptions have developed in a particular manner in order to provide us with direct information about our environment. This includes the physical environment and the interpersonal or social environment.

Several opposing theories have been developed to naive realism, most notably indirect realism and idealism.

The Tenets of Naive Realism

The layperson's social interactions and interpretations of social events are based on three tenets of naive realism:

  1. I see things the way they are based on objective reality. My social attitudes beliefs preferences priorities result from a relatively dispassionate, objective, unbiased and essentially unmediated understanding of the information or evidence that I have.
  2. Other rational people provided with the same information and evidence that I have will react and behave in a similar manner as me and form similar opinions provided they have processed that information in an open-minded, unbiased manner.
  3. If others who don't share my views or react in the same way, there are three possible reasons for this.
  • The person has different information than I do. If this is the case, and they have processed in an open-minded, thoughtful manner, then pooling our knowledge should lead to a greater understanding for both of us and we will reach an agreement as to the experience and how we should react.
  • The person may be lazy, irrational, unwilling, or unable due to some kind of mental deficit to process the information and therefore cannot move from the evidence presented to a normal conclusion
  • The person may be biased by a predisposition to believe in a certain way regardless of the evidence, based on ideology, self- interest, or having a history of being sheltered and prevented from having normative and relatively diverse social experiences such that their views are distorted.

(Reed, Turiel, & Brown, 2013)

Opposing Theory: Indirect Realism

The first theory to challenge naive realism is representational or indirect realism. indirect realism has also been called representational realism in that what we actually perceive is just a representation of what is real. Indirect realists do no reject that that may be times when we can directly perceive something, providing that there are enough recognizable and understood characteristics that are true and perceived as such. But they reject the idea that this type of direct perception is the basis of our overall perceptual experience.

In essence, with indirect realism, we have a a representation that we have formed in our minds that stands between the object and what we perceive. Most often this is due to not being capable of fully perceiving an object or its actual characteristics first hand.

So our image of the sun is a bright yellow disc and the moon is a pale white disc that diminishes over the month and then increases back to a full size disc. In reality, we know that this is not how either the sun or moon really appears and we have seen a variety of pictures of each planet. Yet when we think of the sun and moon we still think of it based on our contrived representation and that is what we see when we look at these bodies. It is this notion of standing in that the term “representative realism” is intended to reflect (BonJour, 2007).

The theory of indirect realism asserts that that while reality may exist we are only aware of our interpretations of the internal representations of this reality. Our perceptions and interpretations are filtered and shaped by our perceptions. The combination of our perceptions and the ways in which we interpret them create a psychological frame of mind consistent with our current explanations about what we perceive. Our interpretations are influenced by similar situations we have experienced and our memories of these experiences.

So, using the previous example, I may see a tree in front of me, but remember when a tree fell on my house and notice that I’m feeling jittery. I see the large straight tree and leaves but perceive the leaves as a threat due to ice and snow that can weight them down and cause them to snap power lines leaving me in the cold. Feeling nervous I hurry out of the tree cover and am anxious all day. The huge tree makes shade, providing dim light, which serves to further darken the area if the electricity is already out. I might worry that those conditions are exactly what criminals look for so they can commit their crimes without getting caught, making me even more nervous. Though I see the tree which is straight and healthy, I do not perceive it as beautiful but instead view it as a threat.

From the initial perception to the associate interpretations, memories, and adjusted interpretations I may then determine that the tree puts me in danger, concluding it should be cut down. Never once do I think of it positively or as having positive attributes much less view it as beautiful. Someone else observing the tree without the same experiences could view the tree in a far different light. Thus, reality, based on this theory, is entirely subjective.

Opposing Theory: Idealism

Another contrasting theory to naive realism is idealism. Just as naive realism claims that there is only reality and that is what we directly perceive, idealism claims that there is no actual reality that exists as a separate entity from our perceptions and interpretations. According to this theory, the world ceases to exist when we stop perceiving it.

In the case of the tree in the above example, perhaps someone is extremely distracted and distraught over the loss of a relationship. They are ruminating over what happened and focused entirely on their own emotions and processing of the experience. They walk right past the tree and never see it. Thus, for them the tree never existed. If later asked if they passed a tree on their route they would reply no. Similar to indirect realism, this theory also holds that existence is purely subjective and is based not on reality but on our perceptions. Yet this theory goes a step further. Reality is based on what we perceive or fail to perceive, such that perception doesn’t alter reality, perception determines reality. These theorists argue that what actually exists may have no bearing on our lives if we are incapable of or simply fail to perceive it.

The obvious problem with idealism is that the failure to perceive something doesn’t mean that it can’t influence us. There is clearly an objective reality that can alter our experiences and lives without our awareness. Reliance on the belief that what you don’t perceive can’t hurt you, may lead to significant problems and the inability to solve them because of the refusal to search for causes.


The Three Theories and the Tree Example

In this case of the tree’s reality, the naive realists would argue that the tree was there, and the tree was real based on its objective physical attributes. Just because the person didn’t see it doesn’t alter the trees reality. Had they focused their perceptions on the tree they would have seen it as it objectively existed.

The indirect realists would say that the tree existed, but the person did not perceive it. This means that there wasn’t conscious awareness of the tree, but it was still processed and interpreted subconsciously. These theorists would say that whatever was encoded into the brain could influence the person whether it was conscious or not.

The idealists would say that the person did not perceive the tree, so the tree does not exist. Few would argue that the idealist way of viewing the world takes the primacy of perception to an extreme. There is a difference between not perceiving something that is there and not perceiving something that is there which renders it not there.

Naive Realism vs. Indirect Realism and The Nature of Reality

Naive realists assert that those who believe in indirect realism are lead astray by representations of reality that they believe they perceive but which are not true direct perceptions. For example, the image of a person in a photograph is not the real person, nor is the voice on the phone the real speaker. We make inferences about what we see and hear based on representations of reality, but this is not the same as direct realism. There is an objective reality and whatever interpretations we make about what we believe we see in a photo or hear in a conversation do not necessarily reflect what is real.

Indirect realists would respond that while indirect perception may not imply objective existence, it is crucial in our construction of reality. This points out the complexity that exists between the point in time when we perceive an object and the route this perception takes to establish direct awareness of the world. When relying on this type of indirect route and viewing it as the end point instead of part of the process, fallacies can occur, especially in our social perceptions.

Social media has set up a perfect environment to display the effects of indirect perception. Online profiles and communication are often altered so the person will be viewed as socially desirable. Others who don’t know the person off screen will react to them and view them based on what they see and hear and assume the person they perceive is the real person. However, it is possible that someone who appears male is actually female and one who seems young is actually old. In such an anonymous setting almost anything can become believable. Does this mean there is no real individual behind the one on the screen? The natural realists would state of course there is, but it is not the same as the representation that is perceived via online platforms.

Indirect realists would also state the individual is “real” but that this reality is not what matters because we respond to them based on our interpretations and belief systems that have developed over time. If we have been hurt and bullied by popular, attractive classmates because we are neither, when we see someone online who we’ve never met who we come to believe is popular and attractive we may immediately decide the individual is untrustworthy and unkind. Whether they are or not doesn’t play into our perceptions at this point nor will the actual reality of the person apart from our view of them influence our behavior and comments in response to the person.

Another person without a history of being bullied will perceive the person differently as will someone who is attractive and popular and who bullied those they considered less than them. When asked about who the person online really is each of these three people will provide three very different accounts of the “real” person, none of which may resemble the person at all. Each will be convinced their description is the accurate one and negate the other two.

Naive realists on the other hand, will point out that these indirect realists have lost track of what is important in determining reality, the failure to move past their individual ideas to the point where they test them out. By testing their beliefs and hypotheses in a rational manner, reality can be gleaned from within the representation. Indirect realists would say that this may help tease out certain inaccuracies in a perfect world but people don’t stop and admit that their thoughts, beliefs and attributions may not be accurate and set out to test them. They act on these beliefs as if they are reality and by acting as if, their beliefs take on the properties of reality for them. This is why indirect realists believe while there is objective reality, it is not truly perceived by people such that we act on subjective reality.

Another problem indirect realists have with naive realism is found in the way representation and interpretation are viewed. Indirect realists argue that very nature of sensation is defined by indirect perception. No two people see things exactly the same, perceive colors as precisely the same shade, hear music in the identical way, or experience smells or taste entirely alike. This means that we are always operating from a perspective of representation and interpretation, even when taking a raw stimulus such as a lemon and using our senses of smell, taste, and sight to define its reality.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, direct realism provides a way of grounding people everywhere so that they are able to relate to each other through a common language based on physical reality. However, naive realism does not provide for the effects of the vast array of human experiences that alter the way we view and perceive the world. The theory also does not account for the judgments and interpretations we make and the manner in which we attribute causation for good and bad events. Even when we have the same experiences as others each of us may view them differently, which will shape our perception of reality.

Indirect realists provide a framework that gives latitude for our experiences and interactions with others to help define reality. It is difficult to believe anyone would argue that we are all exactly the same, always perceive things in exactly the same way and react to this reality exactly the same. The large number of differences sometimes makes our world difficult but also provides diversity, which keeps it interesting and exciting. It also provides the opportunity to continuously learn and grow based on our perceptions and our openness to the perceptions of others.

However, indirect realists sometimes ignore the science of sensation and perceptions in favor of the subjective experience of reality such that they lose the ability to make their position more robust by defining limits for their theory. As for the idealists – the age-old debate of if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it really make a sound and further, did it really fall or does it exist at all? There is little that suggests this these debates about whether there is an objective reality or is there just a world of differences in perception will ever be completely agreed upon. It is an argument that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, even if one group decides the argument doesn’t exist at all.


BonJour, L. (2007). Epistemological problems of perception.

Gomes, A. (2013). Kant on Perception: Naive Realism, Non-Conceptualism, and the B-Deduction. The Philosophical Quarterly, 64(254), 1-19.

Reed, E. S., Turiel, E., & Brown, T. (2013). Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In Values and knowledge (pp. 113-146). Psychology Press.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


Alhazen on March 08, 2018:

Thank you for your stimulating article. Reading your article made me wrap my mind around what I wanted to say last night to an idealist friend.

But what you are describing as direct or native realism is really naïve direct realism. We now have scientific realism where thousands of scientists from all over the world (of different psychologies and cultural backgrounds) cooperate to build a model of reality and continually improve upon it using evidence (experimentations, observations, critical thinking and creativity). A scientific realist, while observing a tree could focus on just the tree or zoom out and also take the mind observing the tree as a subject for observation; to the scientific realist everything is grist to the mill.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 15, 2018:

Glad to hear it, Linda. Thanks for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 15, 2018:

Good point Kari! I think it goes to what frame of reference you are coming from then tempering it with common sense. It's a bit silly to define somethings existence on whether we perceive it or not - that would mean the majority of the world we don't ever have the chance to perceive would not exist. At the same time existence alone isn't enough to make something subjectively real to us. It needs to be meaningful, salient, relevant etc. and there are also different degrees of each of these. Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 15, 2018:

This is a very interesting article, Natalie. You've given me a lot to think about.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 15, 2018:

How would the idealists explain the person so distracted they walked into the tree. It was not there, then it suddenly jumped into reality? I love learning about reality. I think I would be somewhere between native realism and indirect realism.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 15, 2018:

A wise decision, Bill. As always your comments are much appreciated!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 15, 2018:

I leave the weighty discussions for those much smarter than me...I just live! :) As always, an interesting discussion.