October 13, 2018


Research: Perspective-Taking Doesn't Help You Understand What Others Want (Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel, Nicholas Epley, OCTOBER 09, 2018, Harvard Business Review)

[H]ere's the thing: Almost no research has investigated whether trying to take the perspective of another person actually increases your insight into what they truly think, feel, or want.

We recently explored this through a series of 25 experiments with a total of 2,816 people (undergrads, MBA students, Mechanical Turk workers, and other working adults) from the U.S. and Israel. We asked them to predict the thoughts, feelings, and preferences of other people, ranging from complete strangers to spouses. And we found that perspective-taking did not have the effect it's often expected to.

Our first series of experiments assessed judgments of strangers. In some studies, participants viewed photos of other people and assessed their emotions based on their eyes, facial expressions, and body postures. In others, participants watched videos of people and judged whether their expressions were fake or genuine or whether their statements were true. In each of these experiments, one group of participants was asked to engage in perspective-taking -- to "try to see things from that person's point of view, as if you were that person." Participants in the control group simply answered each question.

In contrast to the common intuition that perspective-taking increases understanding, we found that people in our perspective-taking condition were slightly less accurate in their judgments than people in the control condition. For example, in experiments in which participants viewed photos of people expressing different emotions, those encouraged to take the perspective of the people in the pictures guessed the emotions less accurately, on average, than those in the control condition. Perspective-taking did not help accuracy. If anything, it hurt it.

Of course, these were judgments of strangers. whose perspective might have been hard to assess. Perhaps perspective-taking is more helpful when you are considering someone whose perspective you know well, such as a friend or a spouse, or in a context where more is known about another's point of view.

Our next series of experiments asked people to predict the opinions and preferences of either a stranger they had just met or their romantic partner. This included predicting whether the person liked particular activities, jokes, videos, or art, or whether they were likely to agree with certain opinions. Once again, participants who were asked to engage in perspective-taking did slightly worse than those given no specific instructions.

For example, in one experiment in which romantic partners predicted how much their partner liked or disliked activities (for example, "go out to a pub or bar," "play tennis"), those encouraged to take the perspective of their partner guessed less correctly, on average, than those in the control condition. Perspective-taking may indeed work some wonders, but increasing insight into another's mind does not seem to be among them.

If perspective-taking doesn't help, what can you do to better understand others? Our research indicates that you gain understanding about someone only when you acquire new information from them. Instead of perspective-taking, you need to do some perspective-getting.

We barely know ourselves, but even that's better than we know others.

Posted by at October 13, 2018 4:27 AM