STANFORD, Calif. — There’s an old saying that states you should never criticize anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Well, strangely enough, a new study conducted at Stanford University has found pretty much the exact opposite of that old adage. Researchers say that trying to see someone else’s perspective may actually make you less inclined to agree or understand their differing views.
“As political polarization in America has increased, there has been a lot of discussion about how to bring people with opposing views to the table, in order to have more productive dialogues,” says lead researcher Rhia Catapano, of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, in a release from the American Psychological Association. “Our findings show that self-persuasion can be an effective way to move people from entrenched views, but that perspective-taking can actually undermine its effectiveness.”
While addressing political polarization, many pundits and policymakers urge their constituents to consider the other side’s POV and unique perspective before rushing to judgement. However, there isn’t much real scientific evidence that this approach leads to a more understanding discourse. Some people may generate more persuasive arguments or relate more to alternative viewpoints after taking another’s perspective. Others may become even more entrenched in their own views, especially if they already tend to see the other side of an argument as the “enemy.”
Catapano and her colleagues hypothesize that “walking a mile in another’s shoes” can backfire more often than not if that “other person” is seen as someone with a completely different set of morals and values. Unfortunately, within the context of politics, this is usually the case between liberals and conservatives.
Researchers recruited participants from the online forum Reddit in order to reach a large sample of people interested in political issues. In total, 484 participants completed a survey that included questions about their demographics (age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.) and views on universal health care.
Then, each participant was given information about an individual they would supposedly be interacting with during the next task: a 22-year-old white male from Ohio. Here’s the catch; each participant was told the Ohioan’s political ideas and views about health care were the opposite of their own.
Half of the participants were asked to reflect on their partner’s political and moral ideals, and then visualize what his life in Ohio must have been like up until this moment. Finally, all participants were told to write an argument that the 22-year old would likely give to support his views.
While the two groups reported similar initial attitudes toward universal health care at the beginning of the study, those who engaged in perspective-taking reported less receptiveness and exhibited less of an attitude change compared to the control group. Just as the researchers hypothesized, individual values appeared to play a significant role in the results; the perspective-taking group reported that their personal values were less aligned with their partner’s compared to the control group.
Researchers performed a similar experiment with another 998 subjects recruited online, and replicated their findings. However, in this experiment’s results it was also noted that participants were more open to another’s opinions after considering their point of view if they believed they shared the same values.
“When people try to take the perspective of those on the other side, they’re actually quite good at it. They write arguments that people on that side might actually come up with, rather than dismissing the task or writing poor arguments on purpose,” Catapano comments. “The problem is that the arguments appeal to the values of the person whose perspective they’re taking, rather than their own values.”
Surprisingly, the research also revealed that simply attempting to come up with arguments for the other side, a task that was supposed to just be the control in the experiments, actually appeared to boost receptiveness among participants.
“Having people think of arguments for the opposing view but without engaging in perspective-taking, was quite effective in opening people up to the opposing view,” Catapano says. “We found that encouraging.”
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.