July 30, 2007

Americans Myopic About Others' Perspectives?

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!)


  1. Are we really surprised? I wasn't. America in general has become a me first society. Most everything we read - informative blogs such as this are of course the exception- and see on TV is about self aggrandizement -- The "It's all about ME" attitude is everywhere.

  2. Lack of empathy in my fellow human beings infuriates me. But the idea that other cultures aren't as obstinate and pig-headed about walking a mile in someone else's shoes makes me feel a little better.

    Mind if I rest my brain here for a while? Ahhh. (Wake me up when it's not Monday anymore :p)

  3. Oh, I'm not surprised, altho maybe seeing it in writing will jog someone to action/reaction. There's a sense of entitlement here in north america that breeds a smugness and lack of respect/interest in others.
    I suppose I should be happy that some kind of problem exists in other cultures too, but that only really makes it trickier to "just all get along".
    Like Brian said - the whole "all about me" thing is permeating what we do and say. The concepts of sharing and merging are being eclipsed with "getting what I deserve". We're constantly bombarded with images of what we all should have if we just try hard enough...making us all slog away and claw our way to somethign we may not be able to attain in the hopes that it will make us happy. We'll blame others for our shortcomings and keep what we need for ourselves- because after all - we deserve it don't we?
    I often wonder, if like Rome, we'l just imlpode in on ourselves and our excess and disregard for others...
    Well now. Look at me all cheery on a monday morning...I could rant on this for hours. Time to go get a coffee...

  4. Good Morning, Crabby.
    I wholeheartedly support your approach in expanding your blog as health is a many- faceted issue. I'm glad to see it.
    I need to watch how I put the following because the US approach to the world is something we in Canada see objectively even as we understand why it is as it is.
    In general, you've (The collective you. Let me make that clear) got an "America First" view for many things and, frankly, an arrogance that you back up with might rather than being as right as you think you are.
    You're told that America is right and good and it's ground into everyone from birth.
    Of course this skews perspective. How can you expect a global view when so many of your fellow Americans can't find any other State on a map never mind another country?
    It has worsened over the course of the current presidency. Not in the individual citizens, of course, but in the face put on for the world.
    You're a fine people (My paternal grandmother was from Nebraska I have American blood.)but your government and your education system has failed the rest of us.
    Yes, it is a cultural issue, Crabby. Good for you for talking about it.
    Not much is going to change until such time as you turf your president who has his head so far up his ass he's navel-gazing from the inside.

  5. I am not surprised but, what are the Chinese doing differently? I really want answers. I do think that America as a society is a "me" society. In the name of higher self esteem possibly. Is that really all bad?
    We do need to have more empathy. I think that most people in general do at least try. So, what is our real problem?

  6. I'd have to agree that I think Americans are solipsistic beyond belief. It's all Andrew Jackson's fault. He was the one that encouraged the whole Rugged Individualism and Anti-Intellectualism way back when, and that deliberate lack of perspective is now bred into us -- it's the "spine" of our country. (viz, "Love it or leave it") The unexamined national life--does it even count as patriotism if it's only knee-jerk?

    I would still like to see more studies on the perspective issue before I'd conclude anything. And I definitely think that the ability to have persepective is vital to one's well-being.

    Here's a thought by a great thinker (and it's even health related):

    "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." Albert Einstein

  7. I am always right. Even when I am wrong, I am right.

    Kidding! (Ahem, kind of...) This doesn't surprise me. It doesn't occur to many people that others have different perspectives nonetheless, that there may be a need to acknowledge the validity of another perspective, or consider it and adopt it. I don't think it's just Americans. But, I do think there are a lot of Americans that are "set in their ways" and don't see beyond themselves and their personal lives. Living overseas has taught me to see things in a much broader sense, and I thought I was pretty open-minded before I left home. In terms of media, I think you have to work harder in the United States to hear or read about things happening over the world than you do in England. You have to seek it out. Communication and understanding of all types and levels are so important, and many people just don't have those skills to step inside another's shoes.

  8. I'm not the least bit surprised. I can see this attitude in action just by going to the grocery store, where it never seems to occur to anyone that blocking the aisle with their cart or chatting nonsense with the cashier while the line grows and grows, isn't okay.

    It's a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, and I wish I knew the answer.

  9. I think this could very well be one of the major reasons our political system and our social politics have evolved in the way they have. There are basically two camps on either side, each screaming and yelling that they're right, and neither one really stopping to think about what (or why) the other group thinks.

    An example of this - I'm very liberal, grew up in a very liberal area of the country, and have very liberal parents. I brought home a boyfriend one time who wasn't conservative, but wasn't really liberal either (toed the middle line, leaning libertarian). My mother said something along the lines of "does he REALLY believe the things he's saying?" *aghast face*.

    I think if more Americans just stopped and considered why and how people think differently, and acknowledged that it was a valid position (even if they didn't agree with it, or like it), then we could get so much more done in this country.

  10. Are you trying to propagate the idea that there things that matter outside the good ol' US of A? Madness!


  11. Hi Brian,
    Well, as a narcissistic Crab, I'm certainly guilty of the Me Me Me attitude quite often myself. But what I hope to be able to do is at least recognize that and step out of it on occasion. Thanks for stopping by again!

    hi Chicken girl--thanks for the reminder that the Chinese half of the group did well, meaning that at least it's possible for humans to not be so self-centered. And any time you want refuge from work, Cranky Fitness is always happy to have you!

    Great comment, Geosomin, and I often wonder about the Rome parallels myself. Especially in the increasingly imperialistic US.

    Hi Leah!
    Great anatomical analysis of our President's diplomatic posture!

    There's a great book I read a year or two ago called, I think, "Fire and Ice," comparing Canadian and American cultures. Made me want to move to Canada ASAP. (However, I really should google things before I just say them in the comments, I might have the title wrong and don't remember the author's name.) But if you run across it, it's really interesting.

    And thanks everyone for all the great comments so far and I'll return before too long to get to more of them...

  12. Over recent months I have developed a fondness for Americans - mainly because you're the only ones that read my blog!

    However, I do think that on the world political stage there is definitely a feeling of "do it the American way or no way" which does come across as arrogant. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of your various Presidents - who also (to the best of my belief) don't read my blog! The rest of you are wonderful!

  13. Hi Samantha,
    Well, I think the cultural focus on the needs of the group over the needs of the individual may have a lot to do with it. Of course there are trade-offs with this: a lot of cultures where people value 'individual rights' less than the good of the group feel awfully restrictive to Westerners. I for one would not want my life partner chosen by my parents, but in some places that's natural and common. Complicated issues!

    Hi Melissa,
    So that's who started it, huh? While there are some positives associated with the whole "rugged individualism" notion, it seems to led us into a place of extreme arrogance and stupidity.

    And I love the Einstein quote. Measles, that's great!

    Hi Norabarnacle--
    That must be interesting to be getting a whole different perspective overseas. I hate turning on our news shows and seeing the way they no longer even bother to inform us about what's going on in the rest of the world--they know Americans just don't give a crap.

    Returning again before too long...

  14. Oh, I don't know. I think sometimes we're a little too quick to condemn our society. I know there are those people out there with that attitude, but there are also lots and lots of people who are genuinely empathetic and would give you the shirt off their back. I have to admit that I am usually open to seeing the other guys point of view as long as it doesn't cause me a lot of discomfort or trouble. When their perspective causes me harm, I'm a little less tolerant.

  15. (Assumptions of massive groups of people sent up the skeptical "study" read flag, however...)I have to agree with lethogical reader on this one.

    I think all Americans could use a little tweak in this area. I mean really, how many staunch conservatives or serious liberals do you think stop and think, "Huh, I wonder if that guy is a person just like me who breathes, eats, and cares deeply about the people around him just like I do." We're so divided, and so focused on how we're different it doesn't surpise me one bit that American's have "barriers" as far as seeing someone else's point of view.

    Immediately two areas come to mind that I could improve on: I am all the more determined to teach me kids how to treat people and their differing opinions. While I don't place blame solely on parents I do believe raising kids today requires an aggressive effort on the side of the parents to combat crap like entitlement, materialism, and a general coroding decency.

    Secondly, I think "What's the point unless I actually DO something about my discontent with the findings of the study?" One thing I can think of is to gently remind certain family members (don't we all have'em?) about the merits of seeing and trying to understand those "other" points of view.

    It's easy to be disgusted with those "other" Americans who seem to be completely arrogant and unaware of the surrounding world. The reality, I think, is that if we are sincere about showing empathy, then do even the "other" Americans deserve some too? Just a thought.

  16. Hi Bunnygirl,
    The shopping cart is a great example--not the people who take a little while to realize they're blocking, we've all probably done that. But the people who don't even care if others might be trapped behind them.

    Hi lethological,
    Yeah, wouldn't it be nice if we could at least acknowledge other points of view, even if we don't agree with them? But then sometimes when confronted by an extremist, I have the same feeling: they simply CAN'T really think that way can they?

    Hi Vanilla,
    There's an "outside" the USA? Really? Are you sure you're not mistaken about that? ;)

    Hi Dawn!
    (Speaking of other countries...I guess they do exist!)

    You frame your observations quite diplomatically! I do think there's a bit of a disconnect between our "leadership" and our citizens at the moment. But I also can't help remembering how many of our citizens were lined up right behind our President in the last elections; all too willing to divide the world into "good" and "evil." Don't know if Americans (as a whole) are actually reconsidering the idea that US always equals "good," and anyone who disagrees with us = "evil," or people are just upset that the war is going badly. But I agree, many individual Americans don't seem particularly self-centered even if our culture as a whole acts that way.

    Hi Kathy,
    You make a really good point and it raises something of a conundrum for me. I, like you, know so many nice empathetic people who truly seem to appreciate other points of view. But I can't help seeing so many examples of other people in our country, and our culture as a whole, acting as though other people, particularly those from other countries, don't exist. But perhaps I'm just a Crabby pessimist. (Actually, I KNOW I'm a Crabby pessimist). Thanks for reminding me that there are many many kind people here too.

    You bring up lots of good points. And you actually have suggestions for moving from whining about it to taking action--not Crabby's specialty at all!

    I do think it's interesting too how eager I am (and others too, I suspect) to jump all over "other peoples" narrow-mindedness, while not being aware of our own.

    How many times have you been in a car with someone who takes a "car" point of view towards pedestrians and gets mad at them for being in the way--then when they're the pedestrian they can't believe a driver would act exactly the same way towards them? I think we all have an amazing potential for self-delusion about this--myself included. (And sometimes the people most hypersensitive about the self-centeredness of others are those who are self-centered themselves!)

  17. I so love this site. It's mental hygiene.

    I just want to say that I hope we liberals/socialists/lefties in the bunch don't drive off anyone who might be of the opposite persuasion--despite my venting 'impeach' every now and then. And by the way I read ALL the columns in the NYT, even David Brooks, because I want to know what the "other side" has to say. Though I sometimes throw the paper across the room afterward. (I had a Libtard friend say one day Why would you even read it?!, and I was flabbergasted at her lack of curiosity. I think it's called insecurity or something.)

    ANYWAY, I don't want to put off anyone by having my comments disintegrate into political rant. Having said this, I have to confess that, though I've pulled out of the recent painful depression, I'm experiencing such horrible muscle tension and anxiety as you wouldn't believe, and a complete inability to force myself to do anything physical about it, that I went back to the doctor today. Now I have to go on some more medications to try to get myself back into a more reasonable frame of mind. And I TOTALLY put it down to my obsession right now with politics. I hope any conservatives who might be on board realize that we progressives take this all very seriously. I don't think I'm taking it TOO seriously as someone recently suggested--how can it be more serious? Look at what the f is happening. BUT, my doctor and I agreed that I'm not a person who can be this involved until I'm taking better care of myself. So I'm swearing off my favorite political blogs for now, and I'm so glad I have this site to come to instead.

    Hopefully the new mix of drugs (ugh) will help me get my motivation back and the anxiety down, and then I can get onto more healthy pursuits, such as great exercise and new hobbies.

    And by the way I NEVER miss Ben Stein's article in the Business Section (NYT). He is my link with what I think the true conservatives are. I HEARTILY recommend his writing.

    Sorry for the long post. I'm looking forward to doing something really healthy for myself tomorrow so I can tell you all about it, and that it all goes much better from there.

    Love you all.

  18. Hi Melissa,
    Good idea about avoiding political sites, and sorry to bring in some of this divisive stuff to Cranky Fitness, albeit in an offbeat way.

    Hope the medications help, and remember there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same way you do who can immerse themselves in the political fights without paying quite such a high price. Taking care of your own mental health is a really important priority!

    And despite not always agreeing with him, I have a fondness for Ben Stein too. Did you ever see his game show? It was often really funny.

  19. As potentially revealing as this study may be, I find it difficult to determine that as few as 20 people in each of the two study groups would allow us to conclude much of anything.

    This 65% percent majority of Americans who failed to consider the director's perspective at least once during the study still only comes down to a mere 13 individuals. Compare this to the solitary student from the Chinese group. That's still only a difference of 12 people.

    It's certainly worth consideration, a closer look, and is a decent springboard for what has become a very interesting discussion. Your post and many of the comments raise valid points, but to define countries and cultures by the behaviour of only 40 people in one university location seems a bit much.

    There are other possibilities to consider such as Western cultures may simply not be as adept at grasping spatial concepts as others. It may or may not have any connection as to how societal attitudes are perceived.

    I think you have a great blog, Crabby, and expanding it to include a broader definition of health only makes it that much more enjoyable. Thanks for that.

  20. Hmm, there is a lot of pig-headedness out there, but I also think there's a lot of goodness. But maybe at five thirty in the morning I'm just feeling good about society. I'm just not sure the way we react to a board game is an accurate reflection of the way we handle our relationships. That doesn't mean we couldn't stand to work on our attitudes a little.

  21. Hilary,
    Good point about the small size of the study. Though I think when the results are overwhelming enough, even very small studies are able to pick up significant differences between populations. But you're right, it is jumping quite a bit to go from a small study to broad generalizations about cultures! And I agree about the possibility that some other factor, like spatial ability could be coming into play. (I'm the sort of person who has to hold a map in the direction I'm headed or I can't read it--so I might have been terrible at this game myself!)

    Thanks for your level-headed analysis!

    Hi Dana,
    I think it's wonderful that the early hour makes you feel good about society--it tends to just make me want an extra large mug of coffee! But I do think you're right, that there's a lot of goodness as well as pig-headedness in our society.

    And actually, you folks are all a great example of people with a willingness to listen to and try to appreciate other points of view, even though you may not agree. Thanks everyone!

  22. "Well, partly it's because Cranky Fitness seems to be expanding to encompass the broadest definition of "Health" it can possibly get away with."

    Crabby, you're a ranter after my own heart. Love it.

  23. Hey Sara--
    Love that you're pretty "broad" too. Oh. Wait. That didn't come out quite right...

    It's fun to rant on more than one topic isn't it? Glad you're keeping it interesting over at Healthbolt.


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