So a perspective-taking study was published recently (and the more accessible summary is here) and it came to some troubling conclusions. At least if you're an American. If you're Chinese, maybe not so troubling.
Anyway, here's a quick recap:
Researchers from University of Chicago (Boaz Keysar and Shali Wu) invented a game to test how easily people could take another person's perspective.
They tested two groups: students from China who grew up speaking Mandarin, and another group of non-Asian American students.
The researchers asked people from the same cultural group to work together to move objects around in a grid placed between them. One person could see all the pieces; the other person couldn't. The person who could see them could also see which pieces were hidden from their partner.
Here's what happened: the Chinese subjects quickly focused on the objects their partner could see; Americans had a much harder time doing this. Taking the other person's perspective was so much more work for the Americans they spent about twice as long finishing the moves than the Chinese did.
Researchers were surprised by how often the Americans ignored the fact that their partner couldn't see all the pieces. "Despite the obvious simplicity of the task, the majority of American subjects (65 percent) failed to consider... (the other person's) perspective at least once during the experiment." In contrast, only one Chinese subject had similar problems.
It was a small study, but the results were pretty overwhelmingly embarrassing for Americans. That is, if the ability to shift to another person's perspective seems at all an important skill to have.
The results seem both depressing and somehow not surprising.
Sure, this was just about stepping out of one's own head for a moment to consider how another might view objects on a game board.
But have we Americans gotten so used to being the center of our own little universes that we can't even hold it in our brains for a few seconds that other people don't see what we see?
Because that's almost what this looks like: an acquired perceptual disability. As a culture, our self-centeredness is so entrenched and unchallenged that we're almost unable to imagine other points of view.
And so why is Cranky Fitness, a health blog, reporting on this?
Well, partly it's because Cranky Fitness seems to be expanding to encompass the broadest definition of "Health" it can possibly get away with. Diet and Exercise, sure, but also Disease Prevention and Aging and Psychological Issues and Relationship Issues and anything else Mind or Body related. (This approach may be a bit unfocused, but it's more fun than talking about portion control, interval training, and antioxidants every single day).
But also, this study seemed worth covering because as a society, we need the ability to recognize that there are perspectives other than our own. If we can't hold it in our heads that others don't see things as we do over a simple game board, can we do it in the heat of an argument where something real is at stake? Stepping out of our own viewpoint is essential in any sort of relationship or negotiation, whether it's a family, a business, a legislative body, a court of law, a prison, a hospital, a geopolitical summit, a battlefield... It should be second nature for every individual in a civilized society.
To go further out on a limb: no wonder everything is so screwed up. America is the most powerful country in the world, and we Americans have re-wired our brains so as not to trouble ourselves by ever stepping outside our own point of view.
So, what do you think--is this a real cultural issue, or just an overreaction to the implications of a small study based on an invented game?
(And by the way--Smart Readers of Cranky Fitness, even fellow Americans, would no doubt be among the subjects who weren't nearly so clueless!)