GNOME icon artists via Wikimedia Commons
Source: GNOME icon artists via Wikimedia Commons

Often, when you have a difference in opinion with someone else, you are encouraged to “see the world from their perspective.” Even though we use the language of vision in this statement (that is “see the world”), it is easy to assume that this phrase is purely metaphorical. That is, we really mean “understand the world” from their perspective rather than literally “seeing” it that way. 

Does this really need to be metaphorical, though? If you try to take someone else’s vantage point visually, will that actually help you to understand how they conceptualize the world?

This question was addressed in a series of studies by Thorsten Erle and Sascha Topolinski published in the May 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In order to get people to take someone else’s visual vantage point, they used a spatial perspective-taking task. In this task, people sat at a computer and saw a picture of a person sitting at the table. The person was either oriented as though they were seated next to the participant or across the table from them. On the table were two objects, one by the seated person’s left hand, and one by the person’s right hand. An arrow pointed to one of the objects, and the participant in the study had to indicate which hand the person at the table would use to grasp the object by pressing a key on the left side of the keyboard for the left hand and a key on the right side of the keyboard for the right hand. Across the study, the person at the table was sitting next to the participant on some trials and across from them on others.

When the person at the table looks as though they are sitting next to the participant, the task is easy, because participants can use their own perspective to solve this task. But, when the person at the table looks as though they are across the table, the task is harder. In this case, the participant needs to see the table from the other person’s perspective to judge which hand to use. As an indication that this version of the task is harder, people take longer to respond when the person looks to be seated across the table than when the person looks to be seated next to them. This result has been obtained in many studies on spatial perspective-taking.

The question is whether taking another person’s visual perspective makes you think or feel more closely to that person.

In one study, after the spatial task, participants were given a trivia question that requires a numerical answer like “How tall is the spire of the Cathedral in Cologne?”  To help them answer the question, participants are told the guess of the person sitting at the table.  This guess is either quite low compared to the real answer or quite high. Many studies have demonstrated that these initial guesses serve as an anchor that affects the participant’s judgment. So, in general, when given a low anchor, participants give lower estimates for the trivia question than when given a high anchor.

The key finding in this study was that on trials when the person at the table was seated across from the participant (so that the participant had to take that person’s spatial perspective in the first task), then their answer to the trivial question was closer to the anchor than on trials when the person was seated next to the participant. A second study demonstrated that this difference did not occur when participants did a spatial perspective taking task in which they had to imagine themselves sitting in an empty chair that was either next to them or across the table. 

Another study in this series used the same spatial task, but afterward asked participants how much they thought they would like the person in the photo.  Participants rated that they would like this person better when they had to take their spatial perspective than when they did not.

These studies demonstrate that you can actually take the phrase “see the world from someone else’s perspective” literally. Actually trying to imagine what the world would look like from another person’s vantage point also help you to connect with that person better and even to understand the world a bit more like that person.

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Erle, T.M. & Topolinski, S. (2017). The grounded nature of psychological perspective-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(5), 683-695.

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