Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

How Can You Predict How Other People Feel About Themselves?

Think abstractly to see yourself as others see you.

One of the frustrations that comes with close relationships is the difficulty of seeing other people as they see themselves. A teen may wake up one morning with a prominent pimple. He feels like he looks terrible. You see him wearing a nice shirt and tell him he looks nice. He snaps at you, because as far as he is concerned, he is just one giant acne farm. Clearly, you have failed to see him as he sees himself. And that mistaken perception gets taken out on you.

What causes this gap?

A common explanation for a failure to see others the way they see themselves is that you have not taken their perspective. The idea is that if you put yourself in someone else's shoes, you will do a better job of identifying with that person.

A paper by Tal Eyal and Nicholas Epley in the May, 2010 issue of Psychological Science suggests a much different explanation. This work suggests that when you evaluate yourself, you focus on specific details (like a pimple, hair that won't stay under control, or bags under your eyes). When you evaluate others, though, you consider them more abstractly. You focus on their whole appearance rather than on specific details. Because you focus on different information when you evaluate others than they are using to evaluate themselves, your evaluations don't match up.

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To explore this possibility, the researchers ran a number of clever experiments. In one study, they took pictures of participants (who we'll call targets) and told them that others would be evaluating them for how attractive they are. They were asked to use a rating scale to rate how attractive they thought others would find them. One group of targets was told that the other raters would be making their ratings later that day. A second group of targets was told that the other raters would be making their ratings several months later. Research by Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman suggests that we tend to think about things more specifically when they are going to happen soon than when they are going to happen in the future. So, the people who were predicting how attractive others would find them were expected to think about themselves more specifically when they thought the ratings would be made that afternoon than when they thought the ratings would be made in a few months.

The agreement between a target person's rating of herself and other people's ratings of her picture was higher when the target thought other people would be doing the rating some time in the future than when she thought the ratings would be made that afternoon. That is, by making people think of themselves more abstractly, they were better able to see themselves as others saw them.

In another experiment, the authors compared this manipulation of distance in time to a perspective-taking manipulation. They asked people to think about how others would view them before guessing how their picture would be rated. Taking another person's perspective did not improve a target's accuracy at guessing the rating someone else would make. So, it doesn't help just to try to stand in someone else's shoes.

Finally, this same manipulation also helps others when making ratings of a target. In a final experiment, the authors had targets rate how they thought others would rate their attractiveness. Then, they told other participants to rate the attractiveness of a photo. They were told either that the picture had been taken that morning or that it had been taken several months before. People's ratings were a better match to the target's ratings when they were told the picture had been taken earlier that day than when they were told the picture had been taken months earlier. So, thinking about someone else more closely in time makes you see more of the finer details that other people use to rate themselves.

What is the overall lesson here?

Just trying to take someone else's perspective alone doesn't help you to see that person as she sees herself. Instead, you have to really decrease the distance between yourself and that person. Distance can be created in time or in space or in the relationship you have to that person. The more closely you can bring that person to yourself mentally the more that you will begin to see the details that she uses to evaluate herself.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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