Psychology and the Construction of Reality: Challenges to Native Realism

Updated on January 14, 2018
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Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

Native realism, also called direct realism or common-sense realism is one of the founding theories which discusses our perception of the world around us. The theory of native 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.

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 theory suggests that our perceptions have developed in a particular manner in order to provide us with information about our environment, including the physical environment and the interpersonal environment. Several opposing theories have been developed, most notably, Indirect Realism and Idealism.

Opposing Theory: Indirect Realism

The first theory to challenge native realism is representational or indirect realism. This theory claims 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 native realism is idealism. Just as native 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 realtiy. 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 native 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.

Native Realism vs. Indirect Realism and The Nature of Reality

Native 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.

Native 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 native 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, native 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.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


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    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 5 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

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

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 5 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 5 weeks ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      Natalie Frank 5 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

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

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

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