Be Mindwise: Perspective Taking vs. Perspective Getting

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

In his new book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, explores the power of our “sixth sense,” as he calls it—our ability to infer what’s going on in another’s mind, what they think, feel, and want. “Without [this ability],” Epley writes, “cooperative society is barely imaginable.”

Our sixth sense, however, though essential, is nowhere near perfect. There are limits to its power. In addition to showing us the advantages of our sixth sense, Epley also reveals its pitfalls. For instance, people and countries in conflict are often encouraged to take the other side’s perspective. But, as Epley explains in the exclusive excerpt below, taking another’s perspective can end up polarizing opposing sides, further exacerbating a problem rather than solving it. Successful understanding of another’s point of view, he shows, comes not from imaging their point of view, but from asking and listening —  from getting the another’s perspective rather than taking it.

Perspective Taking

In How To Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie lists a series of principles for how to do what his title promises. Principle 8, he writes, is a “formula that will work wonders for you.” The formula? “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” 

To interact effectively with other people, according to Carnegie’s formula, you have to know their minds. One way to do that is through perspective taking: imagining, honestly, the other person’s psychological point of view. You do not literally see the world through the eyes of another, but you imagine how you would understand the world if you were in the other person’s circumstances.

This imagination can be a wonderful thing. When my twelve-year-old son asks me for help with his school essay, I don’t return it with the same frank criticism I’d give to another college professor. Kids learning to write need more encouragement than consternation. Just like every teacher, you tailor your feedback to meet your students’ needs. Being able to imagine another person’s reactions before actually observing them is one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. 

But even great achievements have their limits. Trying honestly to put yourself in another person’s shoes combines your intuitive tools of egocentrism and stereotyping in the hopes of maximizing the benefits of both. You take what you already know about others and then use your own brain to simulate the results if you were someone else. Would I like this action movie if I were a woman? If I were my wife, what would I want for my birthday? How would I feel if I were living in poverty? Would I understand this presentation if I were one of our clients? Would this harsh interrogation technique feel like torture to me?

The benefit of perspective taking is obvious. You maximize your use of what you already know about another person, information that you might otherwise mistakenly overlook. Following the worst oil spill in the planet’s history, British Petroleum’s CEO, Tony Hayward, earned the title of World’s Dumbest CEO by offering a let-them-eat-cake apology that failed to consider any perspective other than his own (1). “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do,” he said. “I would like my life back.” Surely you hope Hayward would have spoken differently if he had actually considered the perspective of Gulf Coast residents who lost their livelihoods.

The weakness of perspective taking is also obvious: it relies on your ability to imagine, or take, the other person’s perspective accurately. If you don’t really know what it’s like to be poor, in pain, suicidally depressed, at the bottom of your corporate ladder, on the receiving end of waterboarding, in the throes of solitary confinement, or to have your source of income soaked in oil, then the mental gymnastics of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t going to make you any more accurate. In fact, it might even decrease your accuracy.

In a series of experiments that my collaborators and I conducted, we asked our volunteers to take several commonly used mind-reading tests. These included trying to detect what emotion someone was feeling by looking at a picture of their face and trying to tell what someone was thinking by looking only at their eyes. Never have we found any evidence that perspective taking—putting yourself in another person’s shoes and imagining the world through his or her eyes—increased accuracy in these judgments. In fact, in both cases perspective taking consistently decreased accuracy. Overthinking someone’s emotional expression or inner intentions when there is little else to go on might introduce more error than insight.

If your belief about the other side’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequences.

What’s more problematic is that if your belief about the other side’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequences. This is particularly likely in conflict, where members of opposing sides tend to have inaccurate views about each other. Ironically, conflict is also the time when perspective taking is most often endorsed as a solution. If an Israeli imagines himself as a Palestinian, what kind of derogatory stereotypes is he likely to access in order to imagine a Palestinian’s mind? If a union leader tries to adopt the management’s perspective, what beliefs about the other side’s circumstances will she bring to bear? If a woman imagines that she is a man, what will her stereotypes lead her to picture? If the image you have about the other side’s circumstance is mistaken, then considering yourself in those circumstances could increase misunderstanding (2).

To see this possibility, consider a negotiation experiment in which my colleagues and I simulated a real-world conflict about overfishing cod stocks in the North Atlantic (3). The conflict represented a classic commons dilemma. Any one fisherman would do better catching as many fish as possible, but the entire resource would collapse if every fisherman caught as much as possible, thereby making everyone worse off. The solution is getting each individual to commit to catching the most they can while leaving enough to maintain the resource. The problem is that fishermen mistakenly believe that other fishermen are more selfish than they actually are. If each fisherman assumes that he can’t trust any of the others, then it’s every man for himself and the ecosystem collapses.

We simulated this dilemma in our experiment by asking four people in each negotiation session to represent different fishing groups. Each group member saw the total amount of fish needed to maintain the stocks, how many fish each group was capable of catching on its own, as well as the other fishing options they might have if the fishing stock collapsed. Each group spent twenty-five minutes in a “simulated conference,” talking about how to solve this dilemma fairly. Afterward, each group member reported how many fish they would harvest the next year. In our control condition, each person simply determined the number of fish their group could catch the following year. In our perspective-taking condition, each group member first considered how much each of the other people, with their own differing interests and concerns, would think was fair to harvest before then reporting their own projected harvest.

Our results were clear. Perspective taking exaggerated the perceived differences between the groups, thereby increasing distrust and enhancing selfishness. Those in the perspective-taking groups looked carefully and honestly into the minds of others and did not like what they saw. Perspective taking collapsed the ecosystem the fastest. In real life, cod fishermen facing this exact dilemma did the same. They distrusted one another, overfished the stocks, and collapsed the fishery; many fishermen subsequently lost their livelihood when regulators slashed (or eliminated) the quotas. Stereotypes exaggerate the differences between groups that are defined by their differences, a mistake enhanced by considering the other side’s perspective (4).

Not all perspectives are so deeply divided, but even here we’ve found that gains in accuracy from perspective taking are elusive. In one experiment, we invited 104 couples (most of them married) and asked each person to predict how their partner would respond to twenty questions about their attitudes. These included some relatively unimportant attitudes, such as “I like to pay cash whenever possible,” and also relatively major concerns, such as “If I had my life to live over, I would sure do things differently” and “Our family is too heavily in debt today.” In our control condition, one partner simply predicted how the other would answer each question. In our perspective-taking condition, one partner was asked to carefully adopt the other partner’s perspective by writing about a typical day in his or her life, and then to carefully put themselves in their partner’s shoes while answering the questions. Couples in the control condition were reasonably accurate. The correlation between predicted and actual preferences was .5, reflecting considerable accuracy, and predictions were off by 1.5 points on a scale ranging from 0 to 10. Those who carefully tried to put themselves in their partners’ shoes did not do any better. In fact, they actually did a little worse. The correlation shrank (to .39) and the average error grew (to 1.7). Whatever our couples saw when they put themselves in their spouse’s shoes did not more closely resemble their actual spouse.

We’ve now looked many times for evidence that perspective taking— actively trying to imagine being in another person’s circumstances— systematically increases mind reading and have yet to find any supportive evidence. Trying to predict which activities your spouse will like most? Perspective taking doesn’t help. Trying to predict how attractive you’ll be rated by someone else on the basis of a photograph, as in the experiment I described in chapter 1? Again, perspective taking does not increase accuracy (5). In interracial interactions, other researchers find that perspective taking harms the interaction because it leads people to focus too much on how they are being viewed by the other side and too little on the interaction itself (6). Dale Carnegie’s Principle Number 8 may work many wonders, such as simply getting you to recognize that another person may have a perspective that differs from your own, but providing insight into that perspective does not seem to be one of them.

The main issue is that carefully considering another’s perspective is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do it accurately. I am reminded of this problem every year at Christmas, where the gifts I give after carefully, honestly, and deliberately putting myself in my family members’ perspectives seem to miss the mark as often as they hit it. One miss is particularly memorable. Several years ago, I got what I believed was the best gift ever for my wife: spending a day as an animal handler at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. My wife has always adored dolphins, and she loves the aquarium. If I had those two preferences, I reasoned while putting myself in her shoes, then this was the best possible gift in the entire city I could get.

I could not have been more mistaken. My wife was kind, as always, but she returned my gift. What I’d missed was how her current circumstances had changed what I believed were her long-term preferences, a common mistake among gift givers, according to research (7). She had just given birth to our second son two months before and was in no mood to squeeze into a wet suit and hold stinky fish while exhausted from a lack of sleep. This perspective is obvious in hindsight, and yet gift givers tend to overlook details of such new circumstances in foresight. I’d tried hard to take her perspective but ended up badly mistaking it.

What’s the best way to get someone a gift? The science is clear. You don’t try to adopt another person’s perspective and guess better. Instead, you adopt a different approach. You have to actually get the other person’s perspective, and perhaps the only way to do that is to ask what they want, or listen carefully while they drop hints, and then give it to them (8). That turns out to be widely applicable wisdom.

Perspective Getting

Recognizing the limits of your sixth sense suggests a different approach to understanding the minds of others: trying harder to get another person’s perspective instead of trying to take it. As the old reminder to doctors trying to understand their patients goes, “The patient is trying to tell you what’s wrong with him. You have to shut up and listen.”

Consider an example of how perspective getting might work. In 1993, the U.S. government signed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy into law, banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. By 2010, the Obama administration was considering the consequences of repealing the law. Moral implications aside, knowing how current soldiers felt about this repeal was essential for assessing its practical consequences. This is a textbook mind-reading problem, with at least two approaches to solving it.

One is exemplified by the 1,167 retired military officers who used their perspective-taking ability to imagine the consequences for current soldiers of repealing the law. In an open letter to President Obama and members of Congress, they expressed their strong opposition. “Our past experience as military leaders,” they wrote, “leads us to be greatly concerned about the impact of repeal on morale, discipline, unit cohesion, and overall military readiness. We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would . . . eventually break the All-Volunteer Force.” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, argued that this opposition must be taken very seriously. “They have a lot of military experience,” she said, “and they know what they’re talking about.”

The Pentagon took a second approach to this mind-reading problem. Its officials asked the soldiers their opinions directly by surveying 115,052 soldiers and 44,266 of their spouses in one of the largest studies in military history. The soldiers themselves expressed relatively few concerns. In fact, 70 percent believed that the repeal would have no effect or a positive effect on the military. More telling, roughly the same number (69 percent) said that they had worked with a gay service member already. Among those, 92 percent said it had no effect or a positive effect on the unit’s ability to work together. From these responses, Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded that the repeal “would not be the wrenching dramatic change that many have feared and predicted.” Gates pushed for its repeal.

Recognizing the limits of your sixth sense suggests a different approach to understanding the minds of others: trying harder to get another person’s perspective instead of trying to take it.

Who was right? In 2012, one year after the actual repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military released a study of its consequences. The answer was clear: soldiers could speak their minds when asked directly, but the retired officers who’d imagined the soldiers’ reactions were wrong. The title of the press release says it best: “First Study of Openly Gay Military Service Finds ‘Non-Event’ at One-Year Mark.” Getting the soldiers’ perspective by asking them for it enabled understanding.

We communicate the contents of our minds primarily through language. As Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “If you were to write down every thing you know and then go back through the list and make a check mark next to the things you know only because someone told you, you’d develop a repetitive-motion disorder because nearly everything you know is secondhand” (9). This is why William Ickes, an expert on empathic accuracy, finds that “the best predictor [so far] of empathic accuracy appears to be verbal intelligence” (10). Knowing others’ minds requires asking and listening, not just reading and guessing.

The gains that come from getting perspective directly instead of guessing about someone’s perspective can be big. A few pages ago, I described an experiment in which romantic partners predicted each other’s attitudes. In that study, encouraging perspective taking increased error and reduced accuracy, compared to a simple control condition. That study also included a variation I didn’t tell you about, a “perspective-getting” condition in which one member was given the chance to actually ask the other person the survey questions before predicting their responses. The couples in that group were given the questionnaire, and one partner essentially interviewed the other by asking him or her all of the questions—which is a bit like being able to ask the teacher for the answers to the test just before taking it. To make the task just a little more challenging, the partner being interviewed did not give a numeric response to each question, as was required on the actual survey; instead, the couple just talked through the questions, and nobody was allowed to write down any of their partner’s responses. They would have to rely on their memory alone.

Getting perspective was far more effective than taking perspective. You can see the results in the figure above (Figure 1). Those who first asked for their partner’s thoughts cut their overall error rate nearly in half compared to those in our control condition, and they did even better than that compared to those in the perspective-taking condition. It may seem like cheating to ask your spouse what he or she thinks instead of guessing at the answer, but remember that life is not an in-class exam with an honor code. If you want to know, ask rather than guess. 

Graphs 1 and 2

Interestingly, the only people who might be surprised by these results are the couples who actually participated in our experiment. When we asked them, “How confident are you that your predictions were correct?,” we found no significant differences across our conditions despite enormous differences in accuracy. When we asked a more precise question—“How many out of the twenty items did you predict correctly?”—we found only a relatively small amount of insight into their performance (11). As you can see in the second figure (Figure 2), despite more than doubling their accuracy, those who got their partner’s attitudes right from their mouths thought they were only slightly more accurate than those who imagined their partner’s perspective. Our couples were all again wildly overconfident, but those who adopted the least effective strategy (perspective taking) were the most overconfident, whereas those who adopted the most effective strategy (perspective getting) were the least overconfident.

This rampant overconfidence in our sixth sense helps to explain why people may avoid asking others for their perspective in the first place. One military survey from 2007 tried to assess why junior officers were leaving their posts to go back to civilian life in such high numbers. Of those surveyed, 75 percent said this was the first time anyone had asked them why they’d left. The senior officers believed they already knew the answer. The previous year, Harvard University had conducted a survey about the faculty’s well-being. All organizations want happy and satisfied employees with good morale, but this was the first time in its 370-year history that Harvard had gotten around to asking. Getting perspective first requires knowing that you need it.

After class one day, the spouse of one of my MBA students gave me a particularly interesting example of the benefits that can come from getting someone’s perspective rather than guessing it. He was a military officer stationed in Afghanistan whose unit was promoting the Guardians of Peace program, which, in his words, “tried to get the Afghan civilians to see themselves as the keepers of the peace by reporting bad guys and thus preventing violence.” The main idea was to give Afghan civilians a phone number to call whenever they saw Taliban fighters in the area. His unit handed out thousands of leaflets, played advertising messages over loudspeakers as they rode through town, and, in his estimate, spent $2 million on billboards and banners. And yet, few people wound up calling. The American officers imagined that the Afghan civilians weren’t calling because they didn’t know the number or didn’t want to turn in the bad guys, a textbook example of the correspondence bias I described in chapter 7.

If we want to understand what’s on the mind of another, the best our mortal senses can do may be to rely on our ears more than our inferences.

Eventually, military officials took a different approach. Instead of guessing why the civilians weren’t calling, they talked to the civilians directly. The problem was clear almost immediately. The Afghans knew about the program and wanted to call. Indeed, many had apparently tried. The problem was that the Taliban came into town at night but shut down the cell phone towers before doing so. “So here we had people willing to call when they saw bad guys,” he wrote to me, “but when the bad guys came they couldn’t call because the phones were down!” The solution was not handing out more flyers to increase awareness; it was installing secure cell phone towers (12). The relatively slow work of getting a person’s perspective is the way you understand them accurately, and the way you solve their problems most effectively.

Others’ minds will never be an open book. The secret to understanding each other better seems to come not through an increased ability to read body language or improved perspective taking but, rather, through the hard relational work of putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly. Companies truly understand their customers better when they get their perspective directly through conversation, surveys, or face-to-face interaction, not when executives guess about them in the boardroom. Managers know what their employees think when they are open to the answers and employees feel safe from retaliation, not when managers use their intuition. Spouses understand each other when they are willing to share their thoughts openly and verify that they’ve heard correctly, not when they walk past each other in silence thinking that they already under- stand their spouse perfectly. And parents get insight into what their children are going through only when the lines of communication are fully open, when they listen as well as speak, not when the main lines of communication run through inferences and assumptions. If we want to understand what’s on the mind of another, the best our mortal senses can do may be to rely on our ears more than our inferences.

Excerpted from Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley. Copyright © 2014 by Nicholas Epley. Reprinted by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

References and Notes

  1. For the distinction, see the story by Helen Kennedy in the Daily News: BP’s CEO Tony Hayward: The most hated— and most clueless— man in America (June 2, 2010).
  2. One series of studies demonstrates this clearly. The more partisan people were in a dispute, the more negative their attitudes toward the opposition became, but only after being asked to adopt the opposition’s perspective. Tarrant, M., R. Calitri, and D. Weston (2012). Social identification structures the effects of perspective taking.  Psychological Science 23: 973– 98
  3. Epley, N., E. M. Caruso, and M. H. Bazerman (2006). When perspective taking increases taking: Reactive egoism in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91: 872– 89.
  4. Todd, A. R., et al. (2011). When focusing on differences leads to similar perspectives.  Psychological Science 22: 134– 41.
  5. See Experiment 3a of Eyal and Epley (2010). How to seem telepathic: Enabling mind reading by matching construal. Psychological Science 21: 700– 705.
  6. Vorauer, J. D., V. Martens, and S. J. Sasaki (2009). When trying to understand detracts from trying to behave: Effects of perspective- taking in intergroup interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96: 811– 27; Vorauer, J. D., and S. J. Sasaki (2010). Helpful only in the abstract? Ironic effects of empathy in intergroup interaction. Psychological Science 20: 191– 97; Vorauer, J. D., and S. J. Sasaki (2010). In need of liberation or constraint? How intergroup attitudes moderate the behavioral implications of intergroup ideologies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46: 133– 38.
  7. Lerouge, D., and L. Warlop (2006). Why it is so hard to predict our partner’s product preferences: The effect of target familiarity on prediction accuracy. Journal of Consumer Research 33: 393– 402. Sadly, I didn’t know about these results a few years ago when getting my wife’s Christmas present. Economists find that gift receivers are willing to sell their gifts for roughly 20 percent less than what gift givers paid for them, a clear sign that I’m not the only one who gives bad gifts when they rely on guessing rather than asking directly. Couples getting married often try to reduce the number of bad gifts they get by providing gift registries, where they list, very specifically, the things they want most. Wedding attendees, however, routinely fail to listen to the couples, instead buying gifts not on the list. It’s easy to understand why. Just as I did with my wife, when you think you know someone, you don’t need to ask what they want; nor do you even need to listen when they tell you. This is a mistake.  When researchers at Harvard and Stanford asked married couples about the gifts they received at their wedding, they reported that they were more grateful for the gifts they received from their gift registry list than the gifts they received that had not been on the list. They also said the gifts from their registry were more thoughtful than the other ones. When your friends tell you they want dishes for their wedding but you’re sure this sculpted ashtray you found is so much better, put down the ashtray and get the dishes. Despite what the cliché. says, it’s not really the thought that counts for gift receivers; it’s the gift that counts. Give your loved ones what they want, not what you think they will want. They will thank you later.
  8. Gino, F., and F. J. Flynn (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47: 915– 22. Zhang, Y., and N. Epley (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When “it’s the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141: 667– 81.
  9. Gilbert, D. Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage. The quote is on p. 213.
  10. Ickes, W., et al. (2000). On the difficulty of distinguishing ‘‘good’’ from ‘‘poor’’ perceivers: A social relations analysis of empathic accuracy data. Personal Relationships 7: 219– 34.
  11. The actual correlation between the number our participants believed they answered correctly and the number they actually predicted correctly was .25. This is fairly typical of experiments that compare confidence and accuracy. The correlation is typically greater than 0, but far less than perfect.
  12. I had an experience very similar to this one, but much more mundane, on the very morning I was writing this section of the book. I suspect you’ve had instances like it. My lesson came during an infuriating time trying to get an identification card replaced. The agency had one official phone number. Call it before 8:30 a.m. and you’d receive a message to call back between 8:30 and 5:00. Call during that time, as I did for a solid week, and you’d get a busy signal. Call at 5:00 and you’d be told to call back again at 8:30. The personnel there also never returned my e-mails. I tried to imagine the scene inside the office: my mind envisioned an empty room waiting for the lazy bureaucrat to come back from a long run to Starbucks. My mind panned back and forth between the coffee shop and the empty office, only making me angrier. Why on earth aren’t they answering my phone call? How could a state impose a law that they then don’t enable people to follow? I imagined their perspective, and it only made matters worse. I finally dug up the phone number for a private office within the agency. A day after leaving a message, I got a call back. This officer apologized profusely for how long it had taken to get back to me and said that the entire office was up in arms about the phone line I— and everyone else— had been trying to call. He explained that the state had eliminated the positions that used to answer the phone lines, and this office now got fifteen hundred calls a day on that number, with only one person left to answer that line. He said their phone system was antiquated, and that as far as he knew, there was not even a way to leave an outgoing message on the system when the line was busy, explaining the situation. The perspective I got from him bore little relation to the perspective I’d imagined— or taken— from him. The workers there weren’t lazy or indifferent, as my perspective- taking attempt had suggested. They were desperately trying to implement a law imposed on them without being given sufficient resources to do it. My mistake.