Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Try to see it my way

July 21st, 2011

Earth from the moon iPhone wallpaper“It’s all a matter of perspective.” Ever heard that? The implication is that some things are true only from one point of view, and sometimes that’s the case.

What I find interesting is that seeing the world from someone else’s perspective can also reduce our prejudices about the group that person represents.

Many of our prejudices are automatic and unconscious, which makes them particularly difficult to change. However, a number of studies have found that putting ourselves in another person’s shoes can at least begin to shift them.

For example, a recently published study had volunteers watch a short video showing a black man and a white man doing various everyday activities but being treated differently: the black man was discriminated against because of his race. Some of the viewers (none of whom were black) were asked to visualize what the black man was feeling and experiencing as they watched, while others were asked to remain objective and emotionally detached from the video.

The researchers then asked all the participants to undergo a complex word-matching test that has been shown to demonstrate the presence of unconscious prejudices. Those viewers who thought about the feelings of the man being discriminated against showed significantly less “pro-white bias” than those who had tried to remain objective.

The researchers also found that when their study participants wrote an essay about a day in the life of a young black man – from his perspective – they behaved more positively toward a black interviewer later, smiling more, making more eye contact and using more positive body language.

Another new study took a different approach by asking participants to write about a day in the life of a young man described as someone who dislikes and avoids black people. Participants who did this from his perspective liked him more – and felt more coolly toward black people, although not toward other racial minorities. Please only use this power for good!

It works with other discriminated-against groups, too. A few years ago, Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson put university students into a virtual environment in which they could see themselves in a mirror while having a conversation. However, the mirror didn’t show their real selves: half the participants saw themselves as an average-looking young person and the other half as an average-looking elderly person. Those who briefly “became” an elderly person showed fewer anti-age prejudices on a later word association test.

You can’t necessarily ask the people around you to write essays, watch videos or sit in virtual environments, but there are often conversational opportunities to remind them to take another person’s perspective. I’ve made suggestions like this and watched understanding spread like a smile across someone’s face.

It’s one of the best feelings I know. Do try it.

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