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Psychology and Clients Part 1: Naïve Realism

by Kate Savage

on 29 January, 2016

You’re meeting a new client today; a father whose son was injured while playing with a toy. Like the excellent lawyer you are, you’re prepared. Due diligence? Check. Start on time and with a firm handshake? Check. You introduce yourself and find out that a good friend referred him, and your kids go to the same school. You politely move past the small talk and discuss his case. Keep the client focused on the agenda and manage expectations? Check.You give your client action items, answer any questions he has, and walk him out the door. You return to your desk, satisfied with the meeting; you guided your client through the case, picked up new facts and gleaned a better understanding of the case.

Wrong. You’ve made a terrible mistake, one that could potentially devastate your case. When talking to your client, you didn’t account for an incredibly powerful psychological aspect of interviewing and counseling clients: naïve realism.

What is Naïve Realism?

Naïve realism is the philosophy that your understanding of the world is perceived exactly as it is, based on what we derive from our senses. Objects exist in the world to be taken at face value, and thus have the properties that appear to us. This is because we believe that we see the world objectively, without interference or bias and expect others to share or come to our same conclusions, given they see and rationally interpret the same information. Thus, people who don’t share your views are ignorant and illogical.

If, for example, you walk into your office and sit in your large, brown chair, that’s because your chair is large and brown. Your perception of your office and chair is authentic and universal; everyone should see your chair as large and brown. Let’s say Ryan, one of your firm partners, walks into your office. He agrees that your chair is large and brown. You beam with pleasure and camaraderie; Ryan must be rational, objective, and open-minded. If Ryan thought the chair was small and grey, he’s obviously irrational, biased, or just doesn’t have sufficient information. Your chair is 100%, completely, absolutely, large and brown.

Easy enough to understand, right? You can switch out your large, brown chair for almost anything; politics, fashion, the law, relationships, etc. Ryan could just as easily walked in and agreed with you that climate change is real or that a client will win their case.

We fall subject to naïve realism all the time, and I hate to break it to you, but it’s delusional. Of course you’re not always rational or objective, there’s no way your worldview is universal. In fact, it’s been proven to be a completely false perspective by quantum physics. Your senses are unreliable on a quantum level (yes, your brain lies to you). Unfortunately, our fragile egos can’t handle the truth. People build their reality based on what they pay attention to, and they trust their senses.

Three Major Obstacles of Naïve Realism

According to Jennifer Robbennolt of University of Illinois College of Law, author of Good Lawyers Should Be Good Psychologists: Insights for Interviewing and Counseling Clients, naïve realism presents three major obstacles for you and your client.

False Consensus Effect

Our naïve realism runs so deep, that we actually change our stories based on how we believe others will perceive them through false consensus effect. The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias where people overestimate the normalcy of their opinions, values, beliefs, etc. We believe that others share our opinions, so we perceive a consensus of similarity where consensus doesn’t exist. This derives from a desire to conform and be liked by others – in fact, buying into false consensus actually increases our self-esteem.

When falling prey to false consensus, your client believes you share in their perspectives, and they will actually share less and unconsciously omit personal attributes, behaviors, choices, and beliefs from their story. Consider it a subconscious act of solidarity; your client believes you can intuitively fill in the gaps.

Conveying Information

Naïve realism not only defines what your clients decide to tell you, but how they communicate with you. Your client believes you share similar worldviews, and thus, you must share the same mental capacity concerning information. They struggle with communicating, operating under the false assumption that you know and will understand the material they’re sharing.

Imagine sitting at a table with your colleague, Ryan. You’re chatting about music you like and Ryan wants to tell you about his favorite song, but he can’t remember the name. He taps out the song on the table – tap tap, long pause, tap, pause, tap tap, short pause, tap, tap, tap. He keeps tapping, but you have absolutely no clue what song he’s talking about. Ryan, with the rhythm in his head, is struggling to accurately depict the song because he assumes you know it already, and with just a couple taps, you’ll pick it up. Ryan is unable to share the song with you because he is operating under naïve realism. (For the record, Ryan’s favorite song is “Hello”, by Adele. Did you catch that from his tapping? Probably not.)

Persuasion

This is where you come in. I know, you thought this was just about your client, right? That it’s just your client’s naïve realism that was ruining everything? Again, your ego is sabotaging you; you’re just as much at fault. You’re just as susceptible to naïve realism, false consensus, and communication failure, but its persuasion that will really get you.

Secure in the surety that you understand your client and their case accurately, you’re far too confident in your ability to persuade your client or any third party to your point of view. Pressuring an opposing attorney? Trying to convince your client to settle? You’re overestimating your skill, and you could lose your case if you’re not careful.

Moving Beyond Naïve Realism

Instead of relying on your usual agenda for interviewing and counseling clients, it’s time to consider how naïve realism can work in your favor.

Let’s go back to your new client, the father whose son was injured. Begin by checking yourself; your perspectives and values are unique and cannot be projected onto the client.

Then, consider your client. While you may believe all lawsuits are about the monetary settlement, your client may believe differently. Perhaps this is about morals, or traditional family values. Perhaps your client deeply believes in his ability to protect his family and punish those who hurt them. This may not be about money at all, but about intense emotions. Your client believes the company that built his son’s toy is morally bankrupt and should be held accountable. Your client may believe that because you have children as well, you’re going to share his same opinions. In actuality, you disagree, and know that the law may construe the case differently.

You must be aware of and carefully explore all of the ways in which your client’s views and beliefs may differ from your own in order to successfully navigate the effects of naïve realism.