Blue Line

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It’s all a matter of (social) perspective


April 29, 2013
By Corrie Sloot

1285 words – MR

HEAD: It’s all a matter of (social) perspective

So there I was having my toes painted, this time in Florida. I am carrying out an international social psychological study of toe-painting (also referred to as “having a pedicure”) and have managed to include Bermuda, San Juan and Florida among my study participants this year alone.

I note that the assortment of available polish colours is more limited in Bermuda – and they really seem to like sparkles in Florida. Also, people who do pedicures almost always seem to come from “somewhere else.” Regardless of where you are, the pedicurists are generally from Not There. The Florida pedicurist was no exception. She almost expressed condolences when I told her I was from Canada, saying she could not imagine living anywhere other than the place she had come from (a curious observation as she was clearly no longer living there.)

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She extolled the many virtues of Not There and spoke glowingly about how wonderful it was. She plans to return when she saves enough money from her work in Florida. I was getting a little fed up with her diatribe about Not There and commented that I thought most people regarded their own country as the best place to live. She was aghast. It had clearly never occurred to her to consider that the perspective of others might be different from her own. This would have made sense if she was five but as an adult, she really should have been aware that not everyone sees everything the same way.

The ability to perceive that other people see situations differently is called “perspective taking.” When it comes to perceiving interactions and social situations differently, it is called (cleverly) “social perspective taking.”

The ability to take the viewpoint of others and see things from where they sit is an important factor in determining a person’s level of social skill and takes time to learn. As infants, we are not even aware that there is an “us” and a “them;” we do not perceive ourselves as separate from the people around us. At some point, we clue in that we are ourselves and soon realize that other people do not always agree with is. Generally, we are not too happy about this and the “terrible twos” ensure. We know people do not always agree with us – but we are not sure why.

It is only in the realm of age 5-9 that we start figuring out that other people don’t agree because they actually have other points of view, but we have no idea what that might be.

By around age 7-12, kids reach the point where they can start making a guess at what others might be thinking and doing. Once you start figuring out the thoughts of others and how they see things, you can start using this information in interactions. Teenagers can do this; I think that is why they can successfully manipulate their parents!

At the highest level, which generally does not emerge until late adolescence, people can anticipate, analyse and integrate information about the perspectives of a variety of people in the same situation and draw conclusions reflecting a variety of perspectives. They realize that people can react differently to the same situation. They develop the ability to analyze the perspectives of several people involved in a situation from the viewpoint of an objective bystander and can even imagine how different cultural or social values would influence the bystander’s perceptions.

It is handy to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others. Classroom teachers use this skill in trying to guess the topics and perspectives that will engage their students. Teachers also find that assisting students to take the perspective of others can make for more effective learning. They might ask them to imagine what it would be like for a Native Canadian, for example, to lay eyes on a European for the first time (assuming they had not Googled them first). Perhaps they might ask students to imagine what it must have felt like to be stepping off the boat in North American for the first time as an immigrant.

Shop keepers use this skill to figure out what will engage people as they enter their store. Many of us used this skill when first dating – what might I appear to be to that cute guy/girl over there? If I put myself in their shoes, what kind of person do I seem like?

The ability to take another’s perspective is, of course, also an integral part of police work. In a hostage situation, for example, you need to figure out the motivation and perspective of the hostage-taker. It helps to understand where a person is coming from in an interrogation (e.g. their perspective). If you are trying to hunt someone down, putting yourself in their shoes may well tell you where they might have gone and what they’re up to. Simply put, putting yourself in another’s shoes helps you figure out why a person is doing something, whether it be your kid, spouse, partner or neighbor. People see things differently depending on their gender, age, job, race, education…

A great deal of research has looked at the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and criminal behaviour. Alas, there is no straightforward relationship. Sometimes, teaching a young offender (for example) to see someone else’s point of view is helpful and leads to cessation of crime. Consider the effectiveness of restorative justice, for example. Other times it does not help. Some offenders use this ability against others (“Aha! I know those people will try to help me if I appear to be injured – then I can rob them. Suckers!!”). Other offenders are well aware of the effect they have on others – but lack the self control to offset their evil urges.

Taking someone else’s perspective is not the same thing as empathy. Knowing someone is sad, upset or angry, for example, might lead to sympathy, cautiousness or other helpful emotions, but it is not the same thing as understanding what sadness might feel like to that person, or why they feel the way they do.

Not everyone is actually able to take the perspective of others. Some people with disorders such as autism or Asperger’s may struggle with this, as may some with limited intellectual ability overall or those who are extremely narcissistic and self centred. Some people’s shoes are harder to fit into than others. I might be able to understand a colleague who is habitually late for work – even if I do not approve – whereas it can be trickier to take the viewpoint of a child molester. The person whose cultural values are very different from our own can be a challenge.

Being able to take the perspective of other people is an essential part of human social relationships. In policing, it probably affects every interaction you have with the public. You have to anticipate how seeing a police officer approach might make a person feel. A parent answering the door at 2 AM will look at the situation differently than a person hearing a siren as they speed to work because they’re late.

A petty criminal and veteran of many police encounters will react differently than an immigrant from a country where the police are not your friend. Imagine being a lost child, a person with a mental illness and an elaborate delusions system or a proud parent of a police officer… in each case, things look a little different. It probably helps if you are one step ahead in perceiving perceptions.

Most of us can do this. The hard part is remembering to do it!


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