The Psychology of Naiveté

What does it mean to be “naive”?

Does it always involve innocence or honest misunderstanding? Not exactly. Because after the fact people will tell you things like, “I was so naive. But if I’m really honest about it, I actually knew … [the-truth-comes-out-here].”

Naiveté arises from any number of psychological issues, propped up by subconscious errors in thinking. The most common error in thinking is, “If I don’t overanalyze this, there won’t be a problem.” But what does “overanalyzing” mean? Rationally defined, overanalyzing means going over the same data, logic and conclusions again and again, with no discernable purpose. A naive person doesn’t go over things so much as glossing over them, while hoping for the best.

A common example has to do with personal, especially romantic, relationships. In therapy, a very common goal of people is, “I want to learn how to find healthier people who are better matches for me.” This can mean finding the “secret steps” or techniques for learning people’s true undesirable natures from the first few moments. That’s not really possible. Nobody has that kind of mythical, almost psychic foresight. But the good news? It’s not necessary, either.

In these situations, I usually ask people, “Were there red flags about the person you ignored or minimized earlier on in this relationship?” Even to my own surprise, the answer is virtually always a resounding “yes!” People can give numerous and specific examples right away of red flags in people they saw earlier on they willingly chose to ignore.

In response I’ll say, “So there’s your magic secret. You already know what red flags are in people. The new technique will be to pay attention to these red flags, rather than ignoring them in hopes that they never happened, and therefore will go away.”

A “red flag” refers to anything questionable or undesirable about a person that you learn early on. It could be a tendency to lie, for example. It could be a habit of being nice to people’s faces and then making fun of them behind their backs. It could be an unfortunate tendency to conclusion-jump or take things personally, an insecurity leading to poor self-confidence and even hostility. Red flags can apply to relationships in business, personal, romantic or any other kind of relationship.

The goal isn’t to immediately delete or get rid of people with red flags, unless the red flag is undeniably horrible, factual and irredeemable. Usually this isn’t the case, so the rational method is to take a policy of “duly noted”. If it turns out the red flag is indicative of something bigger or worrisome about a person that could lead to a deal breaker, then so be it. If it’s a minor or unimportant annoyance, something outweighed by the good or great things you learn about this person, then it’s all the better that you stayed. The key is to pay attention to these indicators, note them and to keep them on your radar as you continue to interact with the person over time.

The problem with naiveté isn’t honest ignorance. We are all honestly ignorant about various subject matters at some point in time. There was a time when I could not read, but now I read several books a month, many of them vast and complex. The same goes for writing, and understanding a whole host of things about a great number of subjects. You could live to be 150 and you’d always be honestly ignorant about something, because there is always more to learn and discover, and 1,000 years of living would not be enough to cover it all.

The problem with naiveté involves the errors in thinking. Other than improper minimizing, another error in thinking is the false belief, “This couldn’t be true. Nobody could be that bad.” You see that in people’s reactions to crimes and terrorism. “Nobody could be that evil. It has to be madness. There has to be some scientific or medical basis for understanding that impulse to kill or maim others.” Well, it’s not necessarily so. Criminologists like Dr. Stanton Samenow, who has studied criminal mentalities for decades, have shown that criminal behavior is due to a perfectly awful way of thinking, including the idea that imposing force or violence on others is a kind of achievement. If you’re naive, you’ll mistakenly rush to conclude, “Well, it can’t be just that. There must be something deeper to it.” And then you’re vulnerable to the next criminal type who comes along.

The presidential election provides another good example. We have a candidate for the highest office in the land for whom a majority appear prepared to vote, even though the same majority believe legal charges and even prosecution may have been appropriate. How does this work? A lot of people do not understand how someone could spend an entire career telling whoppers for the sake of acquiring power. It seems like the stuff of television or cinematic fiction, but not real life. “It can’t be that bad,” is the unspoken feeling. In this case, as in others, people know exactly what they’re getting. But it won’t stop them from being shocked, horrified or perhaps in a state of continuing denial when the full magnitude of what they’ve been minimizing or evading comes to full fruition. The false belief that, “Nobody could really be that depraved,” rests on the foundation of wishful thinking. It’s a failure to see how another might be capable of things you’d never dream of doing yourself.

Honest ignorance does not kill people. Children grow up. Their initial immaturity does not prevent them from becoming all they might be, as some people become. It’s the irrational and wrong-headed habits and ideas of adults that get people into trouble. When it’s naiveté in ourselves or another we decry, it’s actually a recognition that we knew some element of the truth all along … and just didn’t want to name it.

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