When we study psychology, there is a tendency to think about the tasks that we do as if there were built-in modules in the brain dedicated to those tasks.  So, we talk about memory and assume that there is a particular thing in the brain that helps us remember information.  We talk about attention, and figure there must be particular brain systems that help us to pay attention.

As the science of psychology has matured, it has become clear that there are many different systems that help us with a variety of tasks.  We now know, for example, that there are many different kinds of memory.  Some help us remember information over the long-term and some help us to hold on to information for a few seconds or minutes.  Other memory systems allow us to execute habits or to predict what is likely to happen next in a situation.

An interesting paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Rachel Ryskin, Aaron Benjamin, Jonathan Tullis, and Sarah Brown-Schmidt examined perspective-taking as a task.  Perspective-taking is the ability to take someone else’s viewpoint into account when thinking. 

For example, in a classic study, Robert Krauss and his colleagues found that when people were asked to give directions to a landmark in New York City, they changed the way they described how to get to the landmark depending on whether the person asking was from the city.  For other city-dwellers, people gave less specific instructions, because they assumed people would know basic aspects of navigating the city like how to get uptown versus downtown.

These researchers examined whether perspective taking was a single ability or a task that involves multiple different systems.  They examined this question in an interesting way by looking at individual differences in performance on different tasks that require perspective taking.  If perspective taking is a single ability, then people good at one task involving this ability should be good at other tasks involving it as well.

They selected three tasks for participants to perform across multiple sessions.  In one task, participants saw a series of 80 words and were asked to generate cues that would remind them of those words in two days.  This task requires people to take the perspective of themselves in a few days to figure out what would remind them of the words they saw. 

American Psychological Association
Source: American Psychological Association

The second pair of tasks involved conversations between two people seated at different computer screens in separate rooms in which one person had to tell another which object on a 3 x 3 grid to click on.  On each grid, there was one square that was covered so that one of the participants could not see behind it. The participant who could see behind it knew which square was blocked for the other.  The image here shows examples of the materials from the paper. One square is always covered. The gray square is the one into which one participant could see while knowing the other participant could not.

With these grids, the speaker was shown one of the objects and told that the other participant should find that object on their grid.  The object they were supposed to talk about was circled. (Above, it is a banana.)  The key question was: When would participants use an adjective, along with the name of the object, to help the other participant? 

In the situation on the left, the participant has to use the adjective big to distinguish the big banana from the small one.  On the right, there is no need to use an adjective, because there is only one banana. In the middle, though, there are two bananas, but only one is visible to their partner. So from the speaker’s perspective, it should be called a big banana—but if they recognize that their partner can only see one banana, then they should not use an adjective. 

Finally, participants who heard the instructions searched the grid to find the object.  Participants in this study were connected to an eye tracker so that it was possible to see what they were looking at as the task progressed.

In addition to these three tasks, participants completed a number of other measures to help understand what factors lead to good performance in perspective-taking tasks. These included tests of executive function (naming the color of the font in which color words are presented—the word "green" written in a blue font, for example); working memory (the amount of information you can hold in mind at once when doing a task); and long-term memory skill (the number of words from a list people could remember). 

On average, participants were reasonably good at all tasks. In the main exercise, they tended to use adjectives when they were needed and omit them when they were not necessary.  They found the object that their partner was talking about and looked less at objects that were hidden from their partner than at other objects.  However, there were also substantial differences on these tasks across participants.

Of interest, the correlations in performance across all three the tasks were low.  So, doing well in one perspective-taking exercise did not predict how well people would do on another task.  The measure of executive function did not predict individual differences in performance on any of the tasks that well.  Individual differences in working memory predicted how well people would do in the memory task and also in the task in which they were the speaker.  In addition, overall memory performance also predicted how well people would do on the memory task in which people found cues for themselves.  None of the measures predicted how well people would do when finding objects that were labeled for them. 

What does all of this mean?

The complex task of perspective-taking seems to involve a number of different abilities.  You have to figure out what information someone else has access to (or what information you are likely to have in the future) and then use that information to inform what you do on the task.  It appears that this task recruits many different abilities depending on the specific nature of the task you are doing.  So, even though we have a single word for perspective-taking, psychologically it involves many different abilities.

One ability that does seem to be important for this task across at least a few situations is working memory.  That makes sense.  If you are going to take another person’s viewpoint into account, then you need to be able to keep in mind both what you are doing as well as what the other person knows.  The less information you can hold in mind at one time, the less able you are to keep track of what other people know.

Finally, this study further demonstrates how careful we have to be at figuring out the basic units of thinking.  There is a tendency to focus on the tasks people perform and assume the brain is organized in a way that respects these tasks.  Studies like this demonstrate that every task we perform involves a variety of different more basic abilities that are brought together as needed.

One reason why this matters is that when we do neuroimaging studies to look at brain activity when people are doing a task, we often start to identify brain regions with the particular task people were performing.  As this study demonstrates, though, a task like “perspective-taking” is not a single thing.  So, it would be hazardous to conclude that there are particular brain regions that are associated with perspective-taking, because that complex task involves a number of more specific abilities.

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