Fighting With Mirages of Each Other with Adam Mastroianni

September 22, 2022

Have you ever lost a friend to misperception? Have you lost a friend or a family member to the idea that your views got so different, that it was time to end the relationship — perhaps by unfriending each other on Facebook?

As it turns out, we often think our ideological differences are far greater than they actually are. Which means: we’re losing relationships and getting mired in polarization based on warped visions of each other. 

This week on Your Undivided Attention, we're talking with Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School who studies how we perceive and misperceive our social worlds. Together with Adam, we're going to explore how accurate — and inaccurate — our views of each other are. As you listen to our conversation, keep in mind that relationship you might have lost to misperception, and that you might be able to revive as a result of what you hear.

CORRECTIONS: In the episode, Adam says in 1978, 85% of people said they'd vote for a Black president, but the actual percentage is 80.4%. Tristan says that Republicans estimate that more than a third of Democrats are LGBTQ, but the actual percentage is 32%. Finally, Tristan refers to Anil Seth's notion of cognitive impenetrability, but that term was actually coined by the Canadian cognitive scientist and philosopher Zenon W. Pylyshyn.


Adam Mastroianni teaches at Columbia Business School and writes the popular psychology newsletter Experimental History. He studies people’s mistaken theories of social interaction (“Do conversations end when people want them to?” Short answer: no) and social change (“Do people know how public opinion has changed?” Short answer: no). His research has been featured everywhere from The New York Times to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He once got second place on a British reality show about hosting dinner parties, and another time he played a supporting character in a movie that has 3% on RottenTomatoes. He holds a PhD from Harvard and certificates of completion from 129 escape rooms.

Episode Highlights

Major Takeaways

  • The metaphor we often use on Your Undivided Attention for social media-fueled misperception is that of a Funhouse mirror — social media reflects distorted versions of us. We see beauty-filtered versions of our own tribe, and grotesque versions of other tribes. Research like that of Adam Mastroianni's shines a laser in the Funhouse, enabling us to see its contours and how it distorts our view of reality.
  • What's powerful about misperception as an indicator is that it can be measured objectively. It can be hard to accurately measure people’s beliefs about polarized issues, like abortion and guns, but more straightforward to measure people's misperceptions about other peoples beliefs about those issues. 
  • Two threads emerge from Adam Mastroianni's research: first, people worldwide believe morality has been on the decline, although there's been no evidence of that. Second, people believe the past was much more conservative and the present is much more liberal than is actually the case.
  • Naive realism is the idea that we see the world as it actually is. In fact, we all perceive the world through our personal experiences, biases, hopes, and fears. Or as Adam puts it, we see the world through the virtual reality goggles of our eyeballs. 
  • The pre/trans fallacy is a phenomenon whereby two views might seem the same, but be very different. For example, one person holding an anti-vaccine view may believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant chips in humans, while another person holding an anti-vax view is simply aware of the risks that vaccines pose to children and the immuno-compromised. Both views 'look' the same, but are formed by different belief systems.
  • Our misperceptions of each other have major social and political implications. Misperceptions drive hyper-polarization, and result in policies that don't represent the actual majority. 
  • Technology could be designed in order to help alleviate misperception. For example, humane social media might involve 'double confirmation' — whereby our interlocutors would confirm that we understand their views correctly as a prerequisite for engaging in dialogue.

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