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Study finds the limits of putting oneself in another’s shoes (instead, ask and listen)

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I still remem­ber the time I tried to com­fort one of my best friends when her father died. Because I’d lost my own par­ents years before, I thought I under­stood her pain. But, when I offered sym­pa­thy, she balked. Her father’s death had been tran­scen­dent, filled with love and fam­i­ly con­nec­tion. She didn’t feel pain; she felt at peace.

Try­ing to see where anoth­er per­son is com­ing from is often tout­ed as a key to empa­thy. If we imag­ine our­selves in their shoes, the think­ing goes, we’ll be able to pre­dict their feel­ings and their behav­ior, bridg­ing the gap between self and oth­er. This is con­sid­ered a skill—sometimes called “the­o­ry of mind”—that begins in child­hood and devel­ops through­out our lives, help­ing us to nav­i­gate social sit­u­a­tions grace­ful­ly.

But a new­ly pub­lished study (see below) sug­gests that try­ing to take anoth­er per­spec­tive may be less ben­e­fi­cial than we think—at least when it comes to tru­ly under­stand­ing anoth­er per­son. The alter­na­tive? Direct ques­tions and answers. If peo­ple can’t read each other’s minds, then we need to use our words.

The limits of perspective-taking

Researchers Tal Eyal, Mary Stef­fel, and Nicholas Epley ran mul­ti­ple exper­i­ments test­ing whether “putting one­self in another’s shoes” makes peo­ple more accu­rate at pre­dict­ing the oth­er person’s feel­ings or thoughts. They asked par­tic­i­pants to guess how some­one was feel­ing by look­ing at their eyes or to spot whether smiles were fake, among oth­er tests. Some par­tic­i­pants were first asked to take the per­spec­tive of the per­son in the test before mak­ing pre­dic­tions. Oth­ers were giv­en instruc­tions like being told to con­cen­trate hard, or to empathize with the oth­er per­son, or to imi­tate the expres­sion on the oth­er person’s face—alternative strate­gies that researchers think might help with mind reading—while oth­ers didn’t get instruc­tions.

After ana­lyz­ing the results and aggre­gat­ing them, the researchers found that peo­ple who were explic­it­ly told to take the per­spec­tive of anoth­er did no bet­ter at accu­rate­ly read­ing anoth­er per­son than any of the oth­er groups—and, in some cas­es, they did worse.

Peo­ple tend to think they’ll be more accu­rate if they engage in per­spec­tive tak­ing than if they don’t,” says Epley. “But, con­trary to expectations—what might seem com­mon sense—perspective tak­ing doesn’t work the way peo­ple expect it would.”

Per­spec­tive tak­ing did, how­ev­er, make peo­ple become less egocentric—meaning, less like­ly to project their own feel­ings or thoughts onto others—and helped them ques­tion the accu­ra­cy of their guess­es. Still, this greater self-aware­ness did not lead to greater accu­ra­cy.

I think this find­ing high­lights what per­spec­tive tak­ing does—it shifts your per­spec­tive away from your­self and toward a dif­fer­ent per­son,” says Epley. “But you may end up rely­ing on dif­fer­ent information—using stereo­types more, for instance—when judg­ing somebody’s expe­ri­ence. And that’s not more accu­rate.

What good is perspective taking?

Still, these ini­tial exper­i­ments were all done using arti­fi­cial tests. Could per­spec­tive tak­ing increase accu­ra­cy in the real world with peo­ple you meet or already know well—like a spouse? The researchers decid­ed to find out.

Over sev­er­al exper­i­ments, they asked dif­fer­ent pairs of peo­ple to take each other’s perspective—and then guess their partner’s pref­er­ences or opin­ions about things like movies, art, jokes, videos, social issues, or their own per­for­mance in a sim­u­la­tion. The par­tic­i­pants were also asked how con­fi­dent they were in their guess­es and how well they knew the per­son whose opin­ions they were try­ing to pre­dict.

Again, the results showed that peo­ple active­ly tak­ing the per­spec­tive of anoth­er did no bet­ter than those not giv­en that instruction—again, they did worse. How long the par­tic­i­pant had known the oth­er per­son was irrel­e­vant.

Peo­ple might pre­sume that per­spec­tive tak­ing would be more effec­tive when con­sid­er­ing your friend or spouse or some­one you know,” says Epley. “But, even there, we didn’t find it to be help­ful.”

Of course, these results don’t mean per­spec­tive tak­ing has no val­ue, says Epley—just that it may not have the val­ue we think. Rather than help­ing us gauge anoth­er person’s expe­ri­ence, it may sim­ply help us to care more about them.

What I’d say from the lit­er­a­ture is that per­spec­tive tak­ing may strength­en social bonds,” he says. “Whether that shows up in ways that we think of as good is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion.”

For exam­ple, says Epley, con­sid­er the out­come of putting your­self in the shoes of a ser­i­al killer or a mem­ber of ISIS, where that might make you feel clos­er to them or like them more. “Is that a good out­come? That’s not so clear to me,” he says.

Epley believes that, too often, psy­chol­o­gy researchers inter­pret their find­ings from their own par­tic­u­lar val­u­a­tive, moral, or polit­i­cal stand­point. He also sug­gests that some of the research on per­spec­tive tak­ing has suf­fered from con­flat­ing increas­es in car­ing about oth­ers with under­stand­ing their view­points accu­rate­ly.

Often, it is implied that putting myself in your shoes is a good thing and helps me under­stand you bet­ter; but we just don’t find evi­dence of that,” he says.

Want to know what someone’s feeling? Ask them

If per­spec­tive tak­ing doesn’t work well, what does increase accu­rate inter­per­son­al under­stand­ing?

In a last exper­i­ment, Epley and col­leagues test­ed anoth­er strat­e­gy. Before pre­dict­ing anoth­er person’s pref­er­ences, they asked par­tic­i­pants either to take their partner’s perspective—that is, imag­ine how they’d feel—or to sim­ply pose direct ques­tions about what movies, art, and so on, they liked.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, those who got more infor­ma­tion were bet­ter able to pre­dict pref­er­ences on the lat­er tests. How­ev­er, the par­tic­i­pants were no more con­fi­dent in their pre­dic­tions than oth­er par­tic­i­pants, sug­gest­ing that peo­ple over­es­ti­mate the val­ue of per­spec­tive taking—and under­val­ue direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Epley points to anoth­er recent study where some par­tic­i­pants thought that they could pre­dict how some­one was feel­ing by watch­ing their faces as they react­ed to a video that was emo­tion­al­ly evoca­tive. But those peo­ple were actu­al­ly less accu­rate than anoth­er group who saw the exact same video (as opposed to watch­ing the faces of oth­ers as they saw the video). In oth­er words, see­ing the same images led peo­ple to extrap­o­late the emo­tions of oth­ers from their own—even though they believed see­ing the faces of those oth­ers would lead to more accu­ra­cy.

Peo­ple mis­un­der­stand what the most effec­tive strate­gies are for under­stand­ing some­one else,” he says. “You’re worse off going with your gut and trust­ing your intu­ition, yet that’s what peo­ple val­ue.”

Though it may seem that Epley believes humans are hope­less­ly incom­pe­tent at social inter­ac­tion, he insists he’s not. In fact, he says, we’re the most social­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed species on the plan­et. The prob­lem is hubris—thinking we under­stand peo­ple bet­ter than we do and jump­ing to con­clu­sions that are unwar­rant­ed.

Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, we’d do bet­ter at under­stand­ing others—whether a spouse or some­one on the oth­er side of the polit­i­cal spectrum—if we sim­ply asked them about their per­spec­tives and lis­tened, says Epley.

Becom­ing real­ly good at inter­per­son­al under­stand­ing doesn’t require becom­ing a bet­ter guess­er, it requires becom­ing a bet­ter jour­nal­ist,” he says. “Learn­ing how to put peo­ple in a sit­u­a­tion where they can answer ques­tions you pose to them direct­ly, hon­est­ly, and open­ly. That’s the key.”

I wish I’d real­ized that before sym­pa­thiz­ing with my friend. Instead of assum­ing that I knew how she felt, I should have just asked: “How are you feel­ing?

jill_suttie.thumbnail— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good

The Study:

Per­spec­tive mis­tak­ing: Accu­rate­ly under­stand­ing the mind of anoth­er requires get­ting per­spec­tive, not tak­ing per­spec­tive. (Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy)

  • Abstract: Tak­ing anoth­er per­son­’s per­spec­tive is wide­ly pre­sumed to increase inter­per­son­al under­stand­ing. Very few exper­i­ments, how­ev­er, have actu­al­ly test­ed whether per­spec­tive tak­ing increas­es accu­ra­cy when pre­dict­ing anoth­er per­son­’s thoughts, feel­ings, atti­tudes, or oth­er men­tal states. Those that do yield incon­sis­tent results, or they con­found accu­ra­cy with ego­cen­trism. Here we report 25 exper­i­ments test­ing whether being instruct­ed to adopt anoth­er per­son­’s per­spec­tive increas­es inter­per­son­al insight. These exper­i­ments include a wide range of accu­ra­cy tests that dis­en­tan­gle ego­cen­trism and accu­ra­cy, such as pre­dict­ing anoth­er per­son­’s emo­tions from facial expres­sions and body pos­tures, pre­dict­ing fake ver­sus gen­uine smiles, pre­dict­ing when a per­son is lying or telling the truth, and pre­dict­ing a spouse’s activ­i­ty pref­er­ences and con­sumer atti­tudes. Although a large major­i­ty of pretest par­tic­i­pants believed that per­spec­tive tak­ing would sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly increase accu­ra­cy on these tasks, we failed to find any con­sis­tent evi­dence that it actu­al­ly did so. If any­thing, per­spec­tive tak­ing decreased accu­ra­cy over­all while occa­sion­al­ly increas­ing con­fi­dence in judg­ment. Per­spec­tive tak­ing reduced ego­cen­tric bias­es, but the infor­ma­tion used in its place was not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly more accu­rate. A final exper­i­ment con­firmed that get­ting anoth­er per­son­’s per­spec­tive direct­ly, through con­ver­sa­tion, increased accu­ra­cy but that per­spec­tive tak­ing did not. Increas­ing inter­per­son­al accu­ra­cy seems to require gain­ing new infor­ma­tion rather than uti­liz­ing exist­ing knowl­edge about anoth­er per­son. Under­stand­ing the mind of anoth­er per­son is there­fore enabled by get­ting per­spec­tive, not sim­ply tak­ing per­spec­tive.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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