You and I can talk, we can reach out and touch each other on the arm and we can see each other, but we can never know exactly what’s going on in the other’s head.
It’s why psychological science is so hard and it’s why understanding others can sometimes be so hard. It’s also why understanding how we are viewed by others is so hard.
Even the least narcissistic of us spend some time trying to work out how others view us: Do they find us attractive, intelligent, trustworthy, funny?
The news may not always be good, but it still would be fascinating to know.
Research shows that we normally try to work out how we are viewed by others by thinking about how we view ourselves, then extrapolating from that. The problem with this approach is that to varying degrees we all suffer from an ‘egocentric bias:’ we think we’re at the center of the world and everything is about us. We shouldn’t be blamed for this — it’s a natural consequence of the fact that we’re locked inside our own heads.
The problem is that other people don’t share our own egocentric view of ourselves. They’re not seeing us filtered through our personal beliefs, attitudes and intentions. Instead they see us filtered through their own perceptions. So we find it difficult to see ourselves through others’ eyes.
Part of the reason we get it so wrong is that we follow the standard advice to put ourselves in others’ shoes in order to understand their perspective. However, as a new study published in Psychological Science shows, this is not always an effective technique.
Instead, based on some recently conducted experiments, Eyal and Epley (2010) recommend using abstract thinking to get a better view of the way others see you.
In one crucial experiment, the researchers split their participants into two groups to compare their ability to view themselves from the outside. Participants were trying to judge how attractive they were to another person. The first group adopted the standard tactic of putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, while the second group was asked to imagine they would be rated by the other person in several months’ time.
People trying to put themselves in the other person’s shoes were awful at the task. In fact, there was no association between how they thought others would rate them and how they actually did rate them. It seems when trying to judge how attractive we are to others, putting ourselves in their shoes doesn’t work.
But when participants thought about their future selves, a technique that encourages abstract thinking, their accuracy increased considerably. They weren’t spot-on, but they did much better.
This experiment suggests that the fine-grained, low-level way we tend to think of ourselves hinders us from understanding how others view us. You would think we would be able to judge how attractive we are to others — after all, we’ve all got access to mirrors — but in reality we find it difficult. In some ways we are blinded by how much we know. Thinking about ourselves in the future, though, moves our mind to a more abstract level, allowing us to better see ourselves through others’ eyes.
Although it’s not examined in this research, our relationship with another person affects how accurately we see ourselves through their eyes. We are much more likely to have an accurate view of the way our family sees us. The technique of thinking abstractly is likely to work best for people we don’t know so well.
Still, abstract thinking can be useful in many everyday situations, particularly embarrassing ones (e.g., spilling a drink). We may imagine others will judge us clumsy and reckless but generally observers will take a broader perspective: They know that it’s easily done and in the long run makes no difference whatsoever.
The yawning gap between our experience of ourselves and the way others see us contributes to our trouble determining how others evaluate us. When we look at ourselves we can’t see the forest for all the trees. Thinking abstractly allows us to zoom out and bring the whole forest into focus.
Eyal, T. & Epley, N. (2010). How to Seem Telepathic: Enabling Mind Reading by Matching Construal. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610367754.
Flickr photo by Sunny laid back L.A