Maybe You Shouldn’t Take the Perspective of Other People

The age-old advice to walk in another person's shoes may not be good advice.

Posted Apr 16, 2018

CC0 via Pixabay
Source: CC0 via Pixabay

When you want to know what someone else is thinking or feeling, the old adage to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” typically springs to mind. From an early age, most of us are advised that we will be better able to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings if we just look at the world from their standpoint.

The reasoning behind this advice is straightforward. The most obvious way for you to make a prediction about what someone else is going to do is to judge what you would do in the same circumstance. This use of your own experience to understand other people is called an egocentric bias. Lots of work suggests that focusing yourself on someone else’s perspective reduces your tendency toward an egocentric bias.

But, does that make you more accurate at judging thoughts and feelings of other people?

This question was explored in a paper in the April 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel, and Nicholas Epley. 

This paper is unusual because it reports 25 studies that explore the difference between instructions to take another person’s perspective and a control condition in which people were not explicitly asked to do so.

The first 15 studies looked at people’s judgments about strangers. Eleven of these studies asked people to evaluate the mood of pictures of strangers from their facial expression, posture, or their eyes using tasks that have been part of many previous studies. Three studies asked people to distinguish between genuine and fake smiles from videos of people smiling. The last study had people hear a story about memories people had and had to judge whether the person was telling the truth or lying. Participants were drawn from many different samples, some at universities in the US and elsewhere as well as online samples and people from the community.

Across these 15 studies, there was actually a slight tendency for people who were asked explicitly to take the perspective of the people they were judging to be slightly less accurate in their judgments than people in the control condition who were given no specific instructions. This negative effect was small, though, so it is probably best to assume that there was no reliable difference between the perspective-taking instructions and the control task.

Of course, these tasks are a little strange. In most studies, people were judging facial expressions of strangers and doing it quickly. Perhaps perspective taking is more effective when people are judging more substantial aspects of other people’s attitudes or beliefs.

In the next nine studies, the researchers had people make judgments about the attitudes and beliefs of either strangers they had just met and conversed with or of their romantic partner. The studies asked people to assess whether the other person liked particular activities, jokes, videos, or art or whether they were likely to agree with particular opinion statements. 

Once again, people given instructions to take the other person’s perspective did slightly worse on the task than people in the control condition. Again, the negative effect was small overall. At a minimum, trying to take someone else’s perspective doesn’t seem to help people make judgments about others.

So, what can you do to get better at knowing what other people like?

One simple possibility is just to ask them. 

In a final study, the researchers contrasted three sets of instructions. This study involved judgments of opinions of someone’s romantic partner. The control group was given no special strategy. A second group was asked to take the perspective of their partner. Finally, a third group was given a chance to see the opinion questions and to talk with their partner about these items before making judgments. 

As in the previous studies, participants who were asked to take the perspective of their partner did slightly worse than the people in the control condition. However, people who had the chance to converse with their partner about the issues before making judgments actually did a pretty good job of knowing their partner’s opinion. 

Looking back on the studies, it may not be surprising that when you ask someone for their opinion, you then have a clear sense of what they believe. What is interesting is that the advice we get about understanding other people often focuses on walking in their shoes rather than talking to them. Taking another person’s perspective will reduce your egocentric bias, but it does not lead you to use better information to make your judgment about someone else.

Perhaps in the future, the better advice to give people is that if you want to understand their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, invite them for a cup of coffee and have a conversation.

References

Eyal, T., Steffel, M., & Epley, N. (2018). Perspective mistaking: Understanding the mind of another requires getting perspective not taking perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(4), 547-571.