There’s only one way to truly understand another person’s mind

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes won’t improve the accuracy of your insights.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes won’t improve the accuracy of your insights.
Image: Reuters/Henry Nicholis
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It’s often said that we should put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to better understand their point of view. But psychological research suggests this directive leaves something to be desired: When we imagine the inner lives of others, we don’t necessarily gain real insight into other people’s minds.

Instead of imagining ourselves in another person’s position, we need to actually get their perspective, according to a recent study (pdf) in the Journal of Personality and Psychology. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Northeastern University in the US and Ben Gurion University in Israel conducted 25 different experiments with strangers, friends, couples, and spouses to assess the accuracy of insights onto other’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and mental states.

Their conclusion, as psychologist Tal Eyal tells Quartz: ”We assume that another person thinks or feels about things as we do, when in fact they often do not. So we often use our own perspective to understand other people, but our perspective is often very different from the other person’s perspective.” This “egocentric bias” leads to inaccurate predictions about other people’s feelings and preferences. When we imagine how a friend feels after getting fired, or how they’ll react to an off-color joke or political position, we’re really just thinking of how we would feel in their situation, according to the study.

In 15 computer-based experiments, each with a minimum of 30 participants, the psychologists asked subjects to guess people’s emotions based on an image, their posture, or a facial expression, for example. Some subjects were instructed to “consult their own feelings,” while others were given no instructions, and some were told to “think hard” or mimic the expressions to better understand. People told to rely on their own feelings as a guide most often provided inaccurate responses. They were unable to guess the correct emotion being displayed.

The second set of experiments asked subjects to make predictions about the feelings of strangers, friends, and partners. (Strangers interacted briefly to get to know one another before hazarding guesses about the preferences of they had just person they met.) The researchers wanted to see if people who had some meaningful information about each other—like spouses—could make accurate judgments about the other’s reactions to jokes, opinions, videos, and more. It turned out that neither spouses nor strangers nor friends tended to make accurate judgments when “taking another’s perspective.”

“Our experiments found no evidence that the cognitive effort of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes, studied so widely in the psychological literature, increases a person’s ability to accurately understand another’s mind,” the researchers write. “If anything, perspective taking decreased accuracy overall while occasionally increasing confidence in judgment.” Basically, imagining another person’s perspective may give us the impression that we’re making more accurate judgments. But it doesn’t actually improve our ability to judge how another person thinks or feels.

There were no gender differences in the results. Across the board, men and women tended not to guess another’s perspective very accurately when putting themselves in the other’s position. But this did increase self-confidence in the accuracy of their predictions—even when their insights were off.

The good news, however, is that researchers found a simple, concrete way we can all confidently and correctly improve the accuracy of our insights into others’ lives. When people are given a chance to talk to the other person about their opinions before making predictions about them—Eyal calls this “perspective getting” as opposed to perspective taking—they are much more accurate in predicting how others might feel than those instructed to take another’s perspective or given no instructions.

In the final test, researchers asked subjects both to try putting themselves in another’s shoes, on the one hand, and to talk directly with test partners about their positions on a given topic. The final experiment confirmed that getting another person’s perspective directly, through conversation, increased the accuracy of subjects’ predictions, while simply “taking” another’s perspective did not. This was true for partners, friends, and strangers alike.

“Increasing interpersonal accuracy seems to require gaining new information rather than utilizing existing knowledge about another person,” the study concludes. “Understanding the mind of another person,” as the researchers put it, is only possible when we actually probe them about what they think, rather than assuming we already know.

The psychologists believe their study has applications in legal mediation, diplomacy, psychology, and our everyday lives. Whether we’re negotiating at a conference table, fighting with a spouse, or debating the political motivations of voters, we simply can’t rely on intuition for insight, according to Eyal. Only listening will do the trick.

“Perspective getting allows gaining new information rather than utilizing existing, sometimes biased, information about another person,” Eyal explains to Quartz. “In order to understand what your spouse prefers—don’t try to guess, ask.”