Trying to See it Your Way: The Act of Perspective-taking

It’s likely happened to all of us. We see someone behaving in some way or reacting to something and we think to ourselves “Why are they doing that?” or “I would never do that!”  Or maybe you have had the experience of watching the exact same event occur as someone else and realizing that you had very different perceptions of what happened. If you’ve ever reacted to these situations by trying to step outside of yourself for a moment and considering the situation from that other person’s point of view, you would have been engaging in perspective-taking.

Perspective-taking is the act of trying to think about and understand things from another person’s viewpoint [1]. Decades of research on perspective-taking [2] suggests that people (and other animals?!) have the ability to engage in perspective-taking. But how might we engage in this activity? And what happens when we do? The following studies may help in answering these questions.

Research by Galinsky and Moskowitz [1] showed that perspective-taking may lead to reduced stereotyping and more positive perceptions of others. In this study, participants were shown a picture of an older man and asked to do some writing. The researchers divided participants into three groups: a standard (control) group, a do not stereotype group, and a perspective-taking group.  The researchers gave each group different writing instructions. In the standard group, participants were told to write about a day in the older man’s life. In the do not stereotype group, participants were asked to write about a day in the man’s life but to try very hard not to rely on any stereotypes when writing. The participants in the perspective-taking group were asked to write about a day in the older man’s life by trying to see the world through his eyes and imagining what it is like to walk through the world as he does. The results of this study showed that, compared to the standard group, participants’ essays had less stereotypes about the elderly in the do not stereotype and the perspective-taking group. However, the perspective-taking group’s essays showed the most positive views about the man. In addition to this, many other studies have demonstrated that perspective can lead to positive social outcomes such as reducing racial bias [3], improving creativity in group tasks [4], and increased caring for others [5].

However, it is also important to note that perspective-taking can be a difficult task. Research shows that trying to perspective-take while multitasking (e.g. trying to do another mentally taxing activity) makes it harder to see things from another person’s perspective [6].  Additionally, research has shown that trying to take the perspective of a fictional stranger could lead to behaving in stereotypic ways [7].  

Perspective-taking in Human’s Best Friend.  

 Now there is plenty of evidence that humans can engage in perspective-taking and that there might be some positive benefits when they do. But what about other animals? Say dogs? Let’s take a moment and think about dogs. Those of us who have had a dog or two (or more) as a pet or have had any close relationship with a dog may have noticed how in tune these fluffy creatures seem to be with humans. I have had the experience of a dog chewing through my belongings and then reacting by walking around the house somberly and looking guilty before I even realized what he had done. Could it be that dogs can perspective-take? Evidence suggests that dogs may have this ability as well!

In one line of research [8], the participants were dogs of different breads and ages. The experimenter in the study showed a dog a treat but told the dog they could not have the treat. Then the experimenter placed the treat in a location where the dog could easily reach it and sat down in a chair in the room. Dogs in this experiment were divided into 2 groups. Half of the dogs got these instructions but the treat was then placed behind a barrier that would prevent the experimenter from being able to see the dog if they ate the treat. The other half of the dogs had a barrier in the room but, the barrier did not block the view of the experimenter. Thus, the experimenter could clearly see if the dog disobeyed. This study found that dogs were more likely to disobey and take the treat if they could be hidden behind the barrier. Additionally, this research found that if the barrier had a window in it so that the experimenter could still see the dog behind barrier, the dogs were also less likely to eat the treat [8]. Clever dog!


New Ways to Perspective-take. 

How might technological advances enhance the experience of trying to see things from another person’s point of view? Research on virtual reality (VR) suggests that VR technology might offer new methods for perspective-taking. Virtual reality is a computer produced three-dimensional environment that someone can see, hear, and interact with (usually through the use of some kind of headset and/or goggles) [9]. Recent studies have had participants try to perspective-take by stepping into an avatar’s shoes and seeing and hearing an event from their perspective in a virtual world.

There has been recent research that compared standard perspective-taking to VR perspective-taking. For example, in one study, participants were asked to take on the perspective of a homeless person [9]. Then participants were separated into two groups: either a standard perspective-taking group that was asked to write an essay about a day in a homeless person’s life or a VR perspective-taking group that was immersed in a VR simulation of a homeless person’s life. This research found that participants in both groups showed positive attitudes toward the homeless and that there was no difference between the groups in how positively they thought about the homeless. However, people in the VR perspective-taking condition held those positive attitudes for a longer time than the traditional perspective-taking group [9].  

Overall, while perspective-taking may not be an easy task, evidence suggests it may be beneficial. And this could be good to keep in mind the next time I find myself confused by someone else’s behavior or perceptions. Ultimately, no matter what another person’s point of view is or if we agree with them or not it could be an interesting and potentially positive exercise to try and consider the world the way that someone else does.   




[1] Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708-724. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.78.4.708

[2] Piaget, J., Inhelder, B., Langdon, F. J., & Lunzer, J. L. (2006). The childs conception of space. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

[3] Todd, A. R., Bodenhausen, G. V., Richeson, J. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2011). Perspective-taking combats automatic expressions of racial bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1027-1042. doi:10.1037/a0022308

[4] Hoever, I. J., Knippenberg, D. V., Ginkel, W. P., & Barkema, H. G. (2012). Fostering team creativity: Perspective taking as key to unlocking diversitys potential. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(5), 982-996. doi:10.1037/a0029159

 [5] Stewart, R. B., & Marvin, R. S. (1984). Sibling Relations: The Role of Conceptual Perspective-Taking in the Ontogeny of Sibling Caregiving. Child Development, 55(4), 1322. doi:10.2307/1130002

 [6] Roßnagel, C. (2000). Cognitive load and perspective-taking: Applying the automatic-controlled distinction to verbal communication. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30(3), 429-445. doi:10.1002/(sici)1099-0992(200005/06);2-v

 [7] Galinsky, A. D., Wang, C. S., & Ku, G. (2008). Perspective-takers behave more stereotypically. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(2), 404-419. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.95.2.404

 [8] Brauer, J. (2004). Visual perspective taking in dogs (Canis familiaris) in the presence of barriers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. doi:10.1016/s0168-1591(04)00068-1

 [9] Ahn, S. J., Le, A. M., & Bailenson, J. (2013). The Effect of Embodied Experiences on Self-Other Merging, Attitude, and Helping Behavior. Media Psychology, 16(1), 7-38. doi:10.1080/15213269.2012.755877