For at least the past decade, social psychologists have provided evidence that perspective taking (viewing the world through another person’s eyes) leads to a decrease in stereotyping. This makes sense. After all, “walking a mile in another man’s shoes” should increase the likelihood of viewing that man as a full-fledged individual with a rich mental life. Holding such a view should reduce the need to rely on sweeping stereotypic assumptions used to characterize his whole group.
Recent studies, however, suggest that the relationship between perspective taking and stereotyping might not be as simple as it seems. In a recent article, Jeanine Skorinko of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Stacey Sinclar of Princeton University present data suggesting that, at least in some cases, perspective taking can backfire and actually increase stereotyping. Why might this occur? According to Skorinko and Sinclair, when the person being observed appears to be highly consistent with the group stereotype (e.g., an elderly man who is frail and stooped), observers – when asked to describe a day in the person’s life from that person’s perspective – are more apt to do so by using stereotypic content. For example, observers might describe what the elderly man sees and hears as he walks slowly with a walker to feed pigeons in the park. Rather than inhibiting the effect of stereotypes, such a process would allow more stereotypic content to seep in.
Here is how the researchers tested their hypothesis. In one study, all participants were asked to write an essay about a day in the life of an elderly man. Half of the participants were presented with a photo of the man that was highly stereotypic (either lying in a hospital bed or sitting forlornly with his head leaning on a cane), while the other half were presented with a photo that was not stereotypic (e.g., a simple headshot). In addition, half of the participants were asked to write an essay about a day in the life of the man, while the other half were asked to write the essay about a day in the life from that man’s perspective (“looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.”) These essays were later rated by judges (who were blind to the conditions) on how much they referred to stereotypes about the elderly. After writing their essays, participants were asked to rate the degree to which 60 different traits applied to the elderly. Embedded within these traits were traits that are highly stereotypic of older adults (including “dependent,” “weak,” “worrisome”).
The authors found that when participants were faced with highly stereotypic photos, those who took the older man’s perspective wrote essays that were more stereotypic than those who did not take the older man’s perspective. In contrast, when faced with non-stereotypic photos, those who took the older man’s perspective wrote essays that were rated less stereotypic than those who did not take the older man’s perspective.
In a second study, the authors found that this phenomenon extended to observers’ own behavior; participants actually walked slower afterward if they took the perspective of a typical-seeming older adult compared than if they did not take the older adult’s perspective…or if they took the perspective of an atypical-seeming older adult.
Importantly, in the atypical conditions, the authors replicated previous findings; perspective taking did reduce stereotyping. But it seems that when the target individual is highly stereotypic, taking the other person’s perspective only seems to make observers more influenced by the stereotype.
These data suggest that, rather than being a panacea for stereotyping, perspective taking can be a double-edged sword. Viewing the world through the other person’s eyes is helpful, but not enough. An even more important task is to mentally sever that individual from the stereotypic content. Sometimes perspective taking accomplishes this – to the extent that entering another person’s head makes that person seem more like a real individual and less like just another exemplar of the category. But at other times – i.e. when the person seems highly typical of the category – entering the person’s head is taken as entering the head of just another old man. Any benefits of perspective taking seem to be more than offset by the costs of typicality. The bottom line is that we should be wary of shortcuts; breaking down stereotypes is hard work. This is work that must be accomplished at both the individual level and the societal level.
Galinsky, A.D. & Moskowitz, G.B. (2000). Perspective taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708-724.
Skorinko, J.L. & Sinclair, S.A. (2013). Perspective taking can increase stereotyping: The role of apparent stereotype confirmation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 10-18.