A matter of perspective
In his mega-selling classic, How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie urges his readers to try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. ‘This is a formula,’ he writes, ‘that will work wonders for you.’
Most of us share Carnegie’s belief that we can understand someone better by imagining ourselves walking in their shoes. This ability is called perspective-taking.
When Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago, started researching perspective-taking, he found that ‘almost no research had investigated whether taking the other person’s perspective helps you understand what others want’.
Epley and colleagues from Ben Gurion and Northeastern Universities ran 25 experiments on 2,816 Americans and Israelis, asking them to predict the thoughts, feelings and preferences of other people.
Surprisingly, the researchers never found any evidence that perspective taking – ‘putting yourself in another person’s shoes and imagining the world through their eyes’ – improved the accuracy of their judgments. Instead, it actually seemed to decrease accuracy. And ‘if your belief about the other side’s perspective was mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the consequences of the mistakes.’
This is particularly so in conflicts where members of opposing sides hold distorted views about each other across political divides.
Yet perspective-taking is often the default recommendation politicians use when they suggest fixes for intractable disputes. Former US President Barack Obama told the United Nations that ‘the deadlock between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes.’
To test whether perspective-taking increases perceived differences between parties, Epley and colleagues created a negotiation experiment to simulate a real-world conflict about overfishing cod stocks in the North Atlantic.
The conflict represented a classic dilemma: any fishermen would be better off catching as many fish as possible, but the entire resource would collapse if they did, thereby making everyone worse off. Perspective-taking causes fishermen to mistakenly think the other fisherman are more selfish than they actually are. It exaggerated the perceived differences between the groups, and increased distrust and selfishness. Instead of reducing overfishing, perspective-taking collapsed the ecosystem the fastest.
Ask and listen
The good news is that there is a better way to understand the minds of others – and that is ‘perspective getting’. It’s simple as well. All you have to do is replace the mind-reading and guessing of perspective-taking with asking and listening. The gains from perspective getting can be huge.
In 2010, Obama was weighing up whether to repeal the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that banned homosexuals from serving openly in the military. When asked, retired military officers used their perspective-taking skills to express their strong opposition. They said it would negatively impact on morale, discipline, unit cohesion and military readiness.
So the Pentagon directly asked 115,052 soldiers and 44,266 spouses. Seventy percent said the repeal would have either no effect or a positive effect on the military. A year after the ban was repealed, a review described it as as a ‘non-event’.
Finally, Epley cautions: ‘In conversations, bad news gets sugar-coated and unpleasant conversations are avoided.’ Others don’t always know themselves honestly.
Nevertheless, getting perspective is still always a better strategy than taking perspective. The secret, says Epley, is ‘putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly’.
Author: Harry Mills is the subject matter expert on persuasion for the Harvard Manage/Mentor programme
This article was first published in AB magazine February 2023