by Patrick B. Williams, Ph.D.
Given our increasingly intercultural global society, skilled perspective taking, or the ability to take on the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others, is more important to social interaction today than it has been at any time in history. As we strive to balance work, the health of one’s self and family, and happiness, it is easy to lose sight of others’ points-of-view. Maintaining a strong self-centered perspective may help in the short-term, yet long-term solutions to difficult personal and interpersonal problems require taking into account points-of-view and values of close loved ones, strangers, and even those who cause us distress. By listening to our more empathic co-workers and observing more interdependent cultures, we can learn a great deal about what it takes to become better perspective takers.
When psychologists talk about perspective taking, it usually refers to one of two types:
a) Visuospatial perspective taking: Relatively fast and automatic, this form of perspective taking means understanding what others can perceive directly, or what objects are visible within a person’s vision (2).
b) Mentalizing: Slower and more associated with social and skills, this form of perspective taking is related to the adopting another person’s point-of-view. Psychologists commonly refer to this form of perspective taking as walking in someone else’s shoes.
Research shows that men tend to excel at the first type (visuospatial) of perspective taking, compared to women, while women tend to surpass men in the second type (mentalizing (3)). It was once taken for granted that these gender differences were innate, a point of view attributed to then president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers. Dr. Summers controversially argued that gender differences explained why boys outpaced girls in math and science. In reality, these differences can be explained by the way boys and girls embody the perspective taking process, which may be due to cultural and social norms. In this post, we will focus on what gender and culture tell us about our ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Perspective taking is a fundamental ability for social interaction (1), awareness, and understanding. On a basic level it allows us to figure out why others’ behave the way they do based on an evaluation of their beliefs, goals, and intentions. Without a mental model for how others feel and behave, it would not be possible to adjust our actions according to predictions of what others intend to do. With no framework for how others feel, we would not be able to empathize or act compassionately or to help alleviate another person’s possible suffering or distress.
The ability to accurately theorize about the minds of others varies across genders, as well as between individualistic (typically Western) and collectivist cultures (often in East Asia). This ability develops through childhood but typically children do not distinguish between their own and others’ knowledge until about four years of age (5). At this point, they begin to shift away from self-centeredness and embody the thoughts, feelings and motivations of others. However, the development of this capability seems to differ depending on societal and cultural norms. The ability to take another’s perspective increases with social skills (3), and research shows that females are better than males at mentalizing. Furthermore, these gender differences are stronger among westerners than in East Asian cultures (4). This is not to say that there are major differences between men and women and East and West or that men born in western cultures completely lack perspective taking. These skills vary along a continuum, with gender and cultural differences influencing how effectively individuals can change perspective.
Let’s take a closer look at these findings and their implications. That women are typically better at mentalizing is reflected in the general idea that women are more social and nurturing than men, while heightened perspective taking among East Asian cultures could reflect the focus in these cultures on social connectivity over individualism. An interdependent point-of-view is associated with better perspective taking, as University of Chicago psychologists Shali Wu and Boaz Keysar suggest from their recent research6. In a task in which either Chinese or non-Asian American participants were asked to follow a director’s instructions on how to move objects in a grid, Chinese participants made fewer critical mistake — mistakes that could be prevented by perspective taking. By careful analysis of decisions and reaction times, researchers determined that increased effectiveness stemmed not from an increased ability to take on the perspective of the director, but by a focusing of attention toward others, and away from the self. Given the Chinese culture of interdependence, increased ability in perspective taking seems to come about because 1. the self is defined by its relationship with others, and 2. greater attention is given to the role that others play, as well as their actions, knowledge, and needs.
To increase perspective taking and associated social skills, it is important to reflect on others’ feelings, thoughts, motivations, and beliefs, as a backdrop for their actions. Doing so takes practice, and sustained practice in this mentalizing procedure is likely to lead to better social awareness, increased sensitivity to the needs of others, and increased desire to help others. By taking on the perspective of others, at home, at work, or in the world at large, we may learn more about them, and consequently, about ourselves.
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Flavell, J. H., Everett, B. A., Croft, K., & Flavell, E. R. (1981). Young childrens knowledge about visual-perception: Further evidence for the level 1-level 2 distinction. Developmental Psychology, 17, 99-103.
Kessler, K., & Wang, H. F. (2012). Spatial perspective taking is an embodied process, but not for everyone in the same way: Differences predicted by sex ans social skills score. Spatial Cognition and Computation, 12, 133-158.
Kessler, K., Cao, L., O’Shea, K. J., & Wang, H. (2014). A cross-culture, cross-gender comparison of perspective taking mechanisms. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 10, 1-9.
Perner, J. (1991). Understanding the Representational Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wu, S. & Keysar, B. (2014). The effect of culture on perspective taking. Psychological Science, 18, 600-606.