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Sympathy Can Boost Conflict As Well As Curb It, 'Perspective Taking' Studies Show

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Walking in someone else's shoes can backfire--if you do it in the wrong way or at the wrong time, according to research.
Walking in someone else's shoes can backfire--if you do it in the wrong way or at the wrong time, according to research.

By Jamil Zaki

In 2007 a Palestinian youth named Tareq attended an unusual summer camp. Organized by the foundation Seeds of Peace, the camp is designed to facilitate closeness between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, who spend a week together canoeing, hiking and—more important—discussing their experiences of the conflict in which their two nations are entrenched. Tareq's reactions were not what he expected, however. In this idyllic setting, hearing his Israeli counterparts bare their thoughts and feelings, he knew he should come to see them as people just like himself. Instead the more he thought of the Israeli teens' point of view, the less he sympathized with them.

Our intuitions—and a great deal of psychological theory—suggest that “perspective taking,” the proverbial walk in someone else's shoes, can cure many of our interpersonal ills. Thinking deeply about another person's experience should reduce prejudice, shrink the aisle separating political factions and even bring an end to violent conflict. The logic is that problems between groups often amount to a misunderstanding. As such, time spent together—a cup of coffee here, a beer summit there—will lead individuals on either side to understand that they are more similar than they imagined, dissolve their misconceptions and begin to erase their divisions.

This logic is usually valid. Decades of research demonstrate that perspective taking often increases people's sense of camaraderie and similarity to others, while fostering prosocial behaviors such as helping and cooperation. It can also encourage generosity, even toward members of groups such as opposing political parties that a person initially disdained. Yet this approach sometimes fails. In fact, a growing number of studies emphasize the ironic, harmful effects that perspective taking can have.

Group Conflicts

Organizations devoted to resolving conflicts often use perspective taking as an antidote to long-standing animosity between ethnic and political groups. Yet Tareq's experience suggests this strategy may be misguided. Two years after his Seeds of Peace summer Tareq sought out—and eventually worked with—neuroscientist Emile Bruneau of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the psychology of intergroup conflicts. According to Bruneau, numerous studies have shown that perspective taking works to improve the attitudes of dominant groups toward stigmatized ones—for example, that thinking about the mind of a homeless person makes us more amenable to helping him—but this method by no means has to translate to groups locking horns with one another.

In fact, Bruneau recently demonstrated that during a conflict, the effects of perspective taking might differ dramatically depending on who is walking in whose shoes. In work carried out across two continents and described in a forthcoming paper, Bruneau found that relatively dominant conflict groups (in his studies, Israelis and white Americans) feel more positively about their nondominant counterparts (Palestinians and Mexican immigrants, respectively) after taking their perspective but that swapping places mentally has no such beneficial effect for lower-status groups. In fact, listening to the point of view of white Americans actually worsened the attitudes of Mexican immigrants toward this group.

One possible reason for this failure is that less powerful individuals already engage in frequent perspective taking, so more of the same will not budge their attitudes. In a study published in 2011 psychologist Michael Kraus, now at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues found that because the well-being of individuals with lower social status is often subject to the changing whims of others, they tend to pay closer attention to others' minds than do more powerful individuals. Another possibility is that nondominant groups or individuals—students, say, or low-ranking employees—may feel as though their own perspective is too often ignored, making it difficult for them to listen to the dominant side's point of view. Indeed, Bruneau found that nondominant people's attitudes about disputes improved not after perspective taking but after “perspective giving”—that is, describing their own experiences to attentive members of higher-ranking groups. As Bruneau describes it, “nondominant groups express a strong desire to be heard or, in their words, to ‘speak truth to power.’”

Talking Shop

Though less bloody than intergroup strife, business negotiations can turn ugly, too, especially when one party engages in dirty tactics. In an as yet unpublished study psychologist Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University asked mock negotiators to imagine the tactics that the person on the other side of the table would be willing to use—a classic method for fostering perspective taking. What he found was startling: “When you thought about the other person, you were more likely to act unethically,” Galinsky says. Considering a competitor's position even caused negotiators to act unethically toward other people, for example, by lying to an experimenter about how well they performed on a task that was unrelated to the negotiation.

Galinsky believes that the competitive nature of business negotiation may produce a sense of threat, causing perspective takers to disproportionately focus on a rival's nefarious plans to cheat and cajole. This emphasis on others' malicious intent could encourage both sides to employ dirty tactics, especially when they perceive a threatening tone: “When you're in a cold state, perspective taking can warm you to cooperation. But when you're in an inflamed state, thinking about the other person's mind changes perspective taking from the glue that binds us together to the gasoline that worsens the competitive fire,” Galinsky says. This insight could apply to a number of situations in everyday life: circumstances in which people are upset or angry (think marital spats) might make surprisingly bad ground for perspective taking.

Treading Carefully

At first blush, Bruneau's and Galinsky's findings appear bleak. Perspective taking might help friends and colleagues cooperate if they are likely to do so anyway. Just when it is most needed—combative situations in which interpersonal understanding is badly lacking—perspective taking backfires. But the news is not all bad. Bruneau's research suggests a relatively simple way to smooth encounters between warring factions: permit members of the less dominant group to engage in perspective giving first. This work implies that in more commonplace clashes such as those between a student and mentor or an employee and boss, the person in power should make a point of allowing the less dominant individual to feel that he or she is being heard.

For business negotiators, similar framing tactics might help. Negotiations are often perceived as zero-sum: gains for one side must come at a loss to the other. This perception can ramp up the “hot” affective states that render perspective taking most damaging. Negotiations can also be couched as positive-sum, however, in which both parties can potentially gain. For example, a car salesperson and a buyer might have competing goals—pushing a car's price higher or lower, respectively—but they also have the larger, mutual goal of getting a transaction to occur. Focusing on such shared, positive-sum goals might facilitate agreement.

Stepping into another person's shoes is one of the most important aptitudes of humans. It allows us to cooperate on a grand scale and often fuels our desire to guard others' well-being. Yet instead of treating this shift in point of view as a cure-all, understanding its failures can give us a window into social interactions and tell us when—and how—getting inside someone else's head can best help us get along.

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