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Don’t Assume How Someone is Feeling, Just Ask

Don’t Assume How Someone is Feeling, Just Ask

July 5, 2018

Social Sciences & Humanities

Quartz – It’s often said that we should put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to better understand his or her point of view. But researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Chicago and Northeastern University say “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and relying on intuition or ‘gut instinct’ isn’t an accurate way to determine what they’re thinking or feeling.”

Dr. Tal Eyal

Instead of imagining ourselves in another person’s position, we need to actually get their perspective, according to a recent study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers conducted 25 different experiments with strangers, friends, couples, and spouses to assess the accuracy of insights into other’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and mental states.

“We assume that another person thinks or feels about things as we do, when in fact they often do not,” says Dr. Tal Eyal, a member of BGU’s Department of Psychology. “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 the psychologists asked subjects to guess people’s emotions based on an image. 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. 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,” says Dr. Eyal. “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 are making more accurate judgments. However, it doesn’t actually improve our ability to judge how another person thinks or feels.

When people are given a chance to talk to the other person about their opinions before making predictions about them—Dr. 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,” says Dr. Eyal. “In order to understand what your spouse prefers—don’t try to guess, ask.”

Read more on the Quartz website >>