No moral advice is perfectly sound. The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is only as wise as the person following it.
A more modern-sounding tip—take the perspective of others—can seem like an improvement. It was Dale Carnegie’s eighth principle in How to Win Friends and Influence People (it is “a formula that will work wonders for you”), and Barack Obama trotted it out at the United Nations when discussing Israel and Palestine (“the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in each other’s shoes”). Perspective-taking avoids the Golden Rule’s flaw—its effect doesn’t hinge on the integrity of the person considering it. And it’s an inducement to selflessness, in that you’re encouraged to exchange your frame of reference for that of another. Perspective-taking increases the odds you’ll emotionally empathize with the person whose shoes you’re stepping into, rely less on your own biases and group-based stereotypes, and avoid automatic expressions of racial bias.
In a recent study, authors Tay Eyal, Mary Steffel, and Nicholas Epley say these results, among others, “suggest that being told to put oneself into another’s perspective may result in increased interpersonal accuracy,” an understanding of the thoughts and desires of someone else. It doesn’t. After testing the impact perspective-taking had on the accuracy of interpersonal judgments in 25 experiments, the researchers concluded, “If anything, perspective-taking decreased accuracy overall while increasing confidence in judgment.” Even romantic partners together for a decade on average couldn’t get perspective taking to work when quizzed on their significant other’s preferences or views. They thought, on average, that 13 of their 20 guesses would be accurate after being quizzed. Only five were.
This is a counterintuitive finding, Epley explained in a piece for NPR. “The vast majority of people we surveyed predicted that actively adopting another person’s perspective would help them understand another person better in a variety of ways, from understanding another person’s reaction when looking at a picture to predicting movie preferences,” he wrote. “Perspective-taking may work some wonders for your social life, but understanding another person better does not seem to be one of those wonders.”
The lesson for Epley can seem “painfully obvious.” To understand someone, we should not imagine their point of view but make the effort to “get” their perspective. “True insight into the minds of others is not likely to come from honing your powers of intuition,” Epley wrote, “but rather by learning to stop guessing about what’s on the mind of another person and learning to listen instead.”
This takeaway undermines the idea that moral progress depends on perspective-taking, a thesis that George Eliot built into her classic novel, Middlemarch. “Middlemarch is deeply ethical,” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher, novelist, and author, most recently, of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, said. “The differences between her characters are ethical differences which are shown as differences in the limits of their capacity for sympathetic imagination. All of her characters are … after their own wellbeing, but, for some of them, their characters are such that they are able to imagine themselves into others. They are the characters who undergo moral progress and moral expansion. She makes the limits of imagination—not the limits of reason—essential to how much moral progress a character can make.”
Epley, by contrast, doesn’t seem as taken by the ability to imagine the inner reality of others, since the data indicates that what we picture is often spurious. He’s advocated conversation over imagination for years. In 2015, Epley told Nautilus features editor Kevin Berger, “Another person’s mind comes through their mouth.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.