The Pitfalls of Perspective-Taking
By Jacquie D. Vorauer and Matthew Quesnel (University of Manitoba)
You probably take it for granted that when you have a conflict or disagreement with your partner, one of the best things you can do is to step back and try to see the situation from your partner’s point of view. Seeing the situation through your partner’s eyes will help, won’t it? You’ll likely gain a better understanding of your partner’s behavior and feel less upset, right? Perhaps such perspective-taking might be especially helpful for individuals whose own personal point of view is colored by doubts and insecurities–namely, individuals lower in self-esteem.
It turns out that the opposite is true. In fact, recent research (Vorauer & Quesnel, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013) reveals that perspective-taking can actually make things worse rather than better, especially for people with a less-than-positive sense of self-worth.
To understand this counter-intuitive finding, consider that when individuals try to step into their partner’s shoes, the first thing they are likely to see is themselves. They are then apt to wonder what their partner is thinking and feeling toward them (e.g., “Is he mad at me?” “Is she bored with this conversation?”). A lot of prior research tells us that people are generally concerned with being accepted by others and are always monitoring how they are viewed in the back of their mind (e.g., Leary & Downs, 1995). What happens with perspective-taking–an active effort to appreciate a partner’s unique perspective (“What is she thinking?”)–is that these thoughts are brought to mind, such that they take up more cognitive energy and become preoccupying (“She’s thinking bad things about me!”). It appears that this preoccupation with evaluation and resulting negative twist to the thoughts that arise are evident for individuals lower in self-esteem because of their doubts and insecurities.
Specifically, in one of our studies (Study 2), participants who had previously completed a self-esteem measure were asked to write about a day in the life of their romantic partner in which they and their partner had had a conflict or disagreement. Those in the control condition received no further instructions. Those in the “imagine-other” perspective-taking condition were instructed that they should imagine as clearly as possible everything that they would think and feel if they were their partner, taking into account everything that they knew about him/her and trying to adopt his/her own way of looking at things. Participants then did a two-minute open-ended thought-listing task in which they wrote down any thoughts that were on their mind. Next, they completed measures assessing how much they felt that their partner loved them, how satisfied they were with their relationship, and how close they felt to their partner.
Results revealed that individuals lower in self-esteem felt less satisfied with their relationship and less close to their partner when they engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking as compared to when they did not! Moreover, analyses suggested that these effects were due to lower self-esteem individuals feeling less loved by their partner if they had engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking. Indeed, in their open-ended thought-listing responses lower self-esteem individuals expressed more spontaneous negative thoughts about their partner’s feelings toward them (e.g., “He knows I don’t like it when he talks to her yet he won’t stop for me,” “I wish he cared more about me”) if they had engaged in imagine-other perspective-taking than if they had not. So, trying to look inside their partner’s mind led these individuals to dwell on the negative thoughts that he or she might be having about them, which ultimately led them to feel less loved and thus less happy with the relationship. Another study (Study 1) documented a similar pattern of effects when individuals simply described any day in the life of their partner. That is, the effects were not specific to cases where individuals thought about a conflict or disagreement, but were more general, arising even when individuals reflected on typical daily events.
Yet there are some important qualifications to these results. First, the negative effects of imagine-other perspective-taking were only evident for individuals lower in self-esteem: Those with more favorable self-views were not affected by the imagine-other perspective-taking instructions.
As well, the effects were only evident for imagine-other perspective-taking, which involves trying to take into account unique, individuating characteristics of another person, such as whether the person is impatient by nature, generally hates talking about feelings, or is shy in social gatherings. In contrast, the effects were not evident for a different kind of perspective-taking, referred to as “imagine-self” perspective-taking, which involves trying to put oneself in another person’s position (e.g., “What if I had been the one who showed up late?”). Indeed, when participants in our research instead engaged in imagine-self perspective-taking, they viewed their partner’s traits more positively regardless of whether they were higher or lower in self-esteem.
The distinction between these two types of perspective-taking is rather subtle. We think that the reason that they had such different effects is that trying to understand a particular person’s unique way of thinking is more likely to lead individuals to think about how they themselves are evaluated by the person than is simply trying to put themselves in the other person’s position.
Although the results of our research suggest that perspective-taking might not be the best approach for individuals lower in self-esteem to take in their romantic relationships, happily there are other strategies that these individuals can use that are much more likely to be beneficial. What these strategies share in common is that they explicitly direct individuals toward positive relationship information. For example, in “abstract reframing,” individuals are prompted to think about a time when their partner complimented them and then to explain why their partner admired them (see Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). These prompts have a variety of beneficial effects on individuals with lower self-esteem.
Thus, although it may seem a “given” that perspective-taking is always good, it is not. Moreover, for individuals lower in self-esteem, perspective-taking can be harmful rather than beneficial by virtue of exacerbating negative thought processes that reinforce their insecurities.
Jacquie D. Vorauer is a Professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Her work centers on the sources and consequences of individuals’ concerns regarding how they are viewed by others and seeks to identify ways of reducing these concerns. Her research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Matthew Quesnel is a master’s candidate studying social psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. His primary research interests are in the areas of intergroup relations and interpersonal relationships.
Leary, M. R., & Downs, D. L. (1995). Interpersonal functions of the self-esteem motive: The self-esteem system as sociometer. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem (pp. 123-144). New York: Plenum Press.
Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.
Vorauer, J. D., & Quesnel, M. (2013). You don’t really love me, do you? Negative effects of imagine-other perspective-taking on lower self-esteem individuals’ relationship well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1428-1440.