Three Things You Need to Know About Perspective-Taking

It helps to learn to see through other people's points of view. Here's why.

Posted Sep 23, 2020

In 1956, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget conducted an experiment designed to identify the age at which children first learn to see the world through another person’s eyes.

He built models of three different mountains — one with a cross on top, one covered in snow, and one with a tiny hut at the crest — and walked several children around the table to allow them to take in the whole scene. Then he sat each one down at the table and produced a doll, which he set in the scene in another location so that only one or two of the model mountains would be visible, and asked the children to indicate what they believed the doll could “see” from its vantage point. 

He did this experiment with kids of different ages, and the results showed real differences: Children up to 4 years old usually said the doll’s perspective on the mountains would match their own, but 7- or 8-year-olds could consistently identify the correct perspective the doll would have on the mountain scene.

 The_Warfield / Flickr
Source: The_Warfield / Flickr

This experimental design, which came to be known as the Three Mountains Task (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956), helped Piaget conclude that up to 4 years old, children were predominantly egocentric, or mentally limited to their own points of view; after age 8, though, as Piaget stated, taking another person’s perspective generally became possible. 

Since that time, the original experiment has often been repeated, and its results have generally been upheld (Hughes, 1975 as reported in SimplyPsychology.org; Borke, 1975), although later studies have suggested that children younger than four can reliably take the perspective of others, too. These days, however, the relevant question about perspective-taking is not “when does it start,” but really, something more like “when does it stop?”

It’s not difficult to generate examples of the ease with which people fail to take on others’ points of view. Think of the last petty argument you had with a close friend, a family member, or a romantic partner. When they reacted with irritation or anger to something you said, did you take a moment to consider how they might be right, from their point of view? Did you see yourself from their perspective in that moment? 

Or perhaps consider the nation as a whole, which is so often described as “more divided than ever.” How often do persons in one political party take the perspective of the other — of the very people whose ideas they find so distasteful? When confronted with a disagreement or a conflict, it’s altogether too easy to dig in, to defend yourself, and to reaffirm in your own mind why your point of view is the correct one. That way, you’ll feel righteous about it, and you can dismiss the other person’s outlook more easily. Alternatively, entrenching yourself in your own beliefs can help foster indignation, and you might even end up getting into a vicious argument.

But consider what you’re losing in such a scenario. Assuming that the other party — the person who disagrees with you — is acting in good faith, perhaps there is some kernel of truth to their reaction.  Do they see you in a light in which you would prefer not to be seen? Why not? Are they unwittingly prodding at a sensitive area, or bringing up a topic that always provokes you in some way? What might it be, and why? 

Or perhaps their reaction is more about them than it is about you. Have you, in fact, triggered a defensive response with your choice of words? Have you brought up something hurtful? Are you making assumptions about your relationship with which the other party may disagree?

When faced with the opportunity to see things from a new point of view, you should also know what you stand to gain, the three major facets of which have been pointed out by Joscelyn Duffy in her post on Psychology Today

First, taking another person’s perspective can be highly educational. It’s always wrong to believe that you, personally, know it all; other people — even those with whom you disagree — are likely to possess some information that you do not. Tuning in to their perspective can help you learn something new. 

Furthermore, by taking in the information relied upon by others, you may be able to deepen your perspective on your own world. Remember the children, looking over Piaget’s table, with its mountainous landscape? Each side of the table showed one distinct side of the three-mountain vista, but none showed a full bird’s-eye view of it all. Put two sides — two perspectives — together, and you’re closer to knowing and seeing everything that’s on display.

Lastly, perhaps the most important aspect of perspective-taking is that it’s known to be associated with empathy. Tuning in to the outlook of another person — trying to see the world through their eyes — is not far from trying to feel their feelings, and to understand why they feel the way they do. 

A recent meta-analytic study of empathy and perspective-taking suggested that experimental subjects who were told to imagine the feelings of another person — to take his or her perspective — showed much higher empathy levels than subjects who were told to remain objective. From this result, one might go on to wonder if focusing exclusively on your own judgment — on your necessarily un-objective, idiosyncratic view of the world (as I’ve written here) — could actually reduce your ability to empathize with others when they're in pain.

Speaking honestly, and even from personal experience, I know it’s not always a lot of fun to see yourself in a critical, unflattering light, or to hear your ideas and beliefs presented as outrageous. But these days, it's altogether too common to find yourself in the company of people who disagree with you. 

Next time this happens, then, instead of rejecting what they have to say, try a little bit harder to see it from their point of view, based on what you know of their experience. You might confirm, deepen, or modify your own beliefs; you might be able to build empathy. In any case, you’ll almost always learn something new.

References

Borke, H. (1975). Piaget's mountains revisited: Changes in the egocentric landscape. Developmental Psychology, 11(2), 240.

Duffy, J.  (2019, June 2).  The power of perspective taking.  Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-personal-narrative/201906/the-power-perspective-taking

Hughes , M. (1975). Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh University.

McAuliffe, W. H., Carter, E. C., Berhane, J., Snihur, A., & McCullough, M. E. (2019, March 5). Is empathy the default response to suffering? A meta-analytic evaluation of perspective-taking’s effect on empathic concern.

McCullough, M.  (2020, January 21).  Can we boost empathy through perspective-taking?  Retrieved from https://quillette.com/2020/01/21/can-we-boost-empathy-through-perspective-taking/

McLeod, Saul.  (2018).  The Preoperational Stage of Cognitive Development.  Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/preoperational.html

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1956). The child’s conception of space. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Soeiro, L.  (2020, May 22).  Why you might not know yourself as well as you think.  Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/i-hear-you/202005/why-you-might-not-know-yourself-well-you-think