The Pure Hubris of "In His Shoes I'd Have Acted Differently"

When it is unfair to judge historical figures, and each other.

Posted Feb 11, 2017

In this essay I’m going to say a few things you probably already know. But if you bear with me, you might find the examples illuminating. And I’ll draw a conclusion that is only obvious in retrospect. The first example, though, isn’t very dramatic. Here goes.

In Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, subjects delivered shocks (they thought) that gradually increased in strength. Many continued until the person supposedly receiving the shocks seemed to be dying or already dead.

What would you have done?

When my students ponder this question, one group says to themselves, “Those were randomly selected, normal people. I’m a normal person. I might have done that too.” The other group says, “I would never have done that.”

Both groups start with a pre-existing idea that they wouldn’t kill a random person just because an authority figure in a lab coat told them to. Then they encounter evidence that this is something normal people do.

The first group changes their pre-existing ideas about themselves. They learn something. The second group finds a way to reinterpret the evidence that doesn't require them to change their self-concept. They don’t learn.

(Another example: Tell a student that even though it’s impossible for most people to be above average, most people think they are. She will often react by saying “Man, those below-average folks need to adjust their attitudes. But not me, because I really am above average.”)

From a psychological perspective, a lot is going on here. But let me focus on two things. 1) We’re terrible at taking another person’s perspective. 2) We think we’re good at it.

We’re terrible at taking another person’s perspective

Here’s an example of perspective taking gone wrong. An article I assign every year describes community college students’ view of mathematics. The students say things like:

  • “Math is just all these steps.”
  • “Sometimes in math you have to just accept that that's the way it is and there's no reason behind it.”
  • “I don’t think [being good at math] has anything to do with reasoning. It’s all memorization.”

These statements are exactly the opposite of the truth about math. But given the experiences these students have had in school, perhaps they’re accurate.

My point, though, is about their teachers. After the researchers interviewed and tested the students, they met with the college’s math faculty and described their results. The faculty members were astounded. They had no clue about their students’ perspective on math.

I’m not blaming these teachers; I’m saying they’re normal. Notice, though, that these teachers failed when perspective taking should have been relatively easy. They had spent many hours every semester face-to-face with these students, talking about math!

(Perhaps if they had experienced math the way their students had—walked in their shoes, as it were—they would have done better. Presumably they had not.)

Perspective taking is hard. But just as important, the teachers were astounded. It seems that they thought they understood their students’ perspective.

We think we’re good at it

I recently read an essay by Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history. He quotes Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and author. Here is how Levi describes what happened one day when he was speaking to a group of fifth graders.

An alert-looking boy, apparently at the head of the class, asked me the obligatory question: “But how come you didn’t escape?” I briefly explained to him what I have written here. Not quite convinced, he asked me to draw a sketch of the camp on the blackboard indicating the location of the watch towers, the gates, the barbed wire, and the power station. I did my best, watched by thirty pairs of intent eyes. My interlocutor studied the drawing for a few instants, asked me for a few further clarifications, then he presented to me the plan he had worked out: here, at night, cut the throat of the sentinel; then, put on his clothes; immediately after this, run over there to the power station and cut off the electricity, so the search lights would go out and the high tension fence would be deactivated; after that I could leave without any trouble. He added seriously: “If it should happen to you again, do as I told you. You’ll see that you’ll be able to do it.” (Levi 1989: 157)

This kid can’t imagine what it was like to be imprisoned at Auschwitz. This is hardly a sin: Who can? But he makes a second mistake: He thinks he can. That’s why he gives Levi advice on what to do next time.

It isn’t just kids, according to Levi. Adults told him variations on the same thing: “Here’s what I would have done in your situation.”

"If I’d have been in his shoes, I’d have acted differently"

Don’t pretend you can tell what it was like to be in a concentration camp. Or that you understand what Thomas Jefferson was thinking when he wrote about ending the slave trade but continued to own slaves. (Or, for that matter, expect another species--a pet, or worse a wild animal--to feel or act the way you would.)

Let’s consider Harry S. Truman’s decisions to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. There are three subtly different types of judgment to think about here:

  • Judging the decision itself is valuable and important. How did it impact the world? What would have happened otherwise? We can learn how to make good decisions in the future by understanding decisions in the past.
  • Trying to understand Truman’s thought process is also valuable. It can be done, at least to some degree, through careful study of the man and his context. Lessons about human psychology help us understand our history, each other, and ourselves.
  • Here’s what I don’t like: Claiming that you understand the decision maker’s thought process, motives, or morals. Yes, you can try, and you can make progress. But don’t pretend you can get there all the way.

It is one of the purest forms of hubris to assume that if you’d been in someone else’s shoes you’d have acted differently.

But I’ll bet Truman isn’t the president on your mind. Let’s think about today.

On election night in 2016, half of the country could not believe anyone would vote for Hillary Clinton. The other half could not believe anyone would vote for Donald Trump. We collectively said, as a nation: "If I was in the shoes of someone on the other side, I’d have acted differently.” And now I must criticize myself: That’s exactly what I said to myself. I was wrong.

Life in a bubble

The idea that some people live in a bubble and others don’t makes no sense. You live in a bubble. So do I. Let’s admit it.

I don’t mean that there are a few bubbles (rural versus urban, coastal versus middle). I mean every person is in their own little bubble. Our context inevitably shapes how we see the world.

It’s not impossible to take the perspective of someone in a similar context (like, for me, other liberal psychology professors from western Massachusetts). But it gets harder when their context grows more distant (like, for me, unemployed midwestern factory workers whose jobs have gone overseas).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. I’m saying we should try harder. We can understand each other better by listening to people far from our own bubble, reading what they write, and seeing what they go through.

Judging the outcome of other voters’ decisions is fair: Is the world better with Trump in charge than it would have been with Clinton? Good question. But judging the voters themselves is far too tempting.

Who would I have voted for if I was born and raised in a different context? I’d like to say I know, but I don’t.

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