Naive Realism

One of the great things about being in school is access to some really amazing professors. I’m taking this class right now on organizational behavior, taught by Professor Nicholas Epley. I literally walk out of class every week with my mind blown. This guy is just nonstop droppin’ dimes.

One of the topics we’ve been discussing recently is the concept of naive realism, which describes the false impression that a person’s perceptions are an accurate reflection of reality. I’ve been finding this particularly relevant to communication, which is a something I’ve been struggling with a lot myself recently. Shit’s difficult. Not only in terms of dealing with the teams of people I work with, but even more importantly, in my personal relationships. In the last few weeks I’ve gotten into some pretty serious fights with my gf. Partly due to the long distance. Partly due to poor communication by both parties. And I think the root cause of these arguments can be attributed to two factors related to naive realism:

The Communication Medium

I think one big reason is the medium. There’s just so much room for ambiguity in conversation. I remember one instance last quarter when a classmate sent out an email with case notes for us to prepare before a class discussion he was leading. He ended with the sentence “I will be cold calling.”

Generally these student led discussions are easier and meant to be practice for soft skills like public speaking and presentation. So I read that note and thought to myself “wtf” and got kinda pissed.  Who is this guy and why is his presentation so important that I need to put in extra preparation time so I don’t look like a buffoon when I get cold called. I don’t know the guy that well. Turns out he was joking and sarcasm is a big part of his sense of humor. But I did not get this message in his email. Needless to say our entire class was disgruntled during his presentation and it wasn’t until he said he was joking that people started to lighten up.

In the chain of communication: text << voice << in-person meetings.

In each progressive stage you gain access to other factors such as tone and facial expression which elaborate on the subtle nuances of meaning. In the above example, my classmate thought he was clearly communicating his sense of humor to the class. But none of us got it.

Egocentric Biases

However all of these mediums still present opportunities for misinterpretation. This brings me to point #2. The second concept that I think is particularly important to communication is the idea of egocentric biases. An egocentric bias describes how people tend to makes judgements based on their own good and bad perceptions and areas of expertise.

A huge point of contention with my gf right now is how we don’t spend enough time together. It always seems that I would rather spend time partying with friends then with her. However, I’ve realized that these fights are always rife with egocentric biases from both parties. For example, one possibility is that I usually only tell her the exciting highlights of my day, such as a social event, or something funny I heard. However from her perspective, she only hears the highlights, so she think that my life is just filled with these awesome events. She doesn’t realize that during the periods in between highlights, which is 99% of my day, I’m actually just holed up in the library by myself: reading, studying, working. She never hears this perspective since I find it boring and not worth talking about.

This is also called the “curse of knowledge” and has more recently surfaced as the facebook effect, which describes the jealousy you feel when your friends make exciting updates and post pictures of their recent trips. Everybody tends to think that their friends are having more fun than they are. But in truth, it’s an interpretation bias, and your friends probably aren’t having any more fun than you are.

How to improve communication

In researching how I could improve communication with my gf, I found this article written in 2010 by the Wall Street Journal. It echoes many of the same principles being taught in my behavioral organization class. While the article focuses on relationships, a topic that I particularly identify with right now, I believe these steps are broadly applicable to other everyday situations.

Steps to improve communication:

  1. Don’t let conflict stew. The longer you put things off, the greater chance it will become bigger and more threatening.
  2. Call for a meeting to discuss the issue, without searching for a solution. Limit to 15 mins.
  3. Party 1 states his/her position in 3 statements.
  4. Party 2 listens and repeats what he/she heard to demonstrate understanding
  5. Party 1 speaks again, in chunks of 2-3 statements to further explain his/her point
  6. Party 2 listens and parrots understanding back.
  7. They reverse roles and repeat until the 15 mins is up.

I’m gonna try this from now on.

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