Focusing on differences lets me understand you better

Thinking about differences can help you understand other people better.

Posted Feb 04, 2011

When people have a conversation, they have to think about what their partner knows.

Quite a bit of research suggests that we often have difficulty thinking about how someone else's knowledge or point of view differs from our own.  In a 1994 paper by Boaz Keysar in the journal Cognitive Psychology, participants were told a story about Michael, who wanted to take his parents to a restaurant.  He chose to go to a restaurant recommended by his friend Claudia.  Unfortunately, they had a terrible dinner.  The next day, he sent an email to his friend saying only, "The dinner was marvelous, just marvelous."  Participants were asked to rate whether Claudia would think that Michael was being sarcastic or sincere.  Claudia had no way of knowing that Michael and his parents had an awful dinner, and so she should probably think that Michael was being sincere in thanking her for the recommendation.  However, participants generally assumed that Claudia would think the email was sarcastic. That is, they failed to take into account that while they knew Michael and his parents had an awful dinner, Claudia did not.

A paper by Andrew Todd, Karlene Hanko, Adam Galinsky, and Thomas Mussweiler in the January, 2011 issue of Psychological Science suggested that people's ability to take someone else's perspective could be improved by having them think about differences.  A lot of research on the way people make similarity comparisons (some of which was done in my lab) suggests that when people think about differences between things, they must first think about similarities and then find ways of distinguishing things based on those similarities.

Todd, Hanko, Galinsky, and Mussweiler reasoned that having people think about differences might also allow people to recognize differences in perspective that they have with someone else.  That means that thinking about differences should enhance people's ability to communicate and work together in cases where their perspective differs from someone else's.  They tested this possibility in five studies.

A pair of pictures where people can find differences.

In another study, the researchers manipulated mindset in a different way.  At the start of the study, two participants were each asked to estimate the number of dots on a page.  After that, both participants were told that this task helps to diagnose a number of aspects of people's psychology and that people who overestimate the number of dots are generally quite different from those who underestimate the number of dots.  In the Same-Group condition, both participants were told that they had overestimated the number of dots.  This technique has been used successfully in many studies to get people to feel like they have a lot of common ground.  In the Different-Group condition, one participant was told that they were a dot overestimater, while the other participant was told that they were a dot underestimater.  This technique is effective at getting people to think that they are truly members of a different group.

After being told about their dot "type" the pairs did a task where they had to collaborate to solve a maze.  The participants sat across the table from each other.  One participant was blindfolded and the other had to use words to guide that participant as he or she traced a finger through the maze.  Because the participants were facing each other, the person giving directions had to recognize that they had a difference in spatial perspective and to adjust the use of the words left, right, up, and down accordingly. 

You might think that people who believe they are in the same group would be more cooperative.  However, the people who thought they were in the same group actually performed the mazes much more slowly than those who thought they were in different groups.  The people who thought they were in different groups found it easier to recognize the difference in spatial points of view and to adjust their language, and so they completed the task more easily.

This research suggests that it can be straightforward to help yourself take someone else's perspective.  When you are in a situation where success relies on being able to understand how someone else's thoughts, feelings, or even perceptions differ from your own, focus on the differences between you.  The more that you adopt a difference mindset, the easier it will be to see the ways your points of view differ.  Once you see how your thoughts differ from someone else's, you can adjust for those differences when trying to communicate with them or coordinate with them.

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