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


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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