Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Social Media

Illustration by @pedroyarbide

Perspective-taking is the process by which one attempts to view a situation through someone else’s eyes and suspend their own point of view. One can do this visually, by physically changing places with another person to see from their location, or cognitively, in that you simulate (or are asked to simulate) someone else’s point-of-view of a particular concept or even another person or group. The latter is the primary concern of this essay.

Perspective-taking was marked as a developmental breakthrough in cognitive functioning by Piaget (1932) and recognized as part of Kohlberg (1976)’s classification of moral reasoning. It was established that “great gestures of altruism” can be inspired by the presence of perspective-taking (Batson 1991,1998) and that the absence of perspective-taking can incite what Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) described as the “devastations of social aggression” (J. Richardson, Hammouck, Smith, Gardner, & Signo).

Galinsky and Moskowitz concluded from their early experiments that “perspective-takers’ emotional experience comes to resemble that of the targets” (pp. 708).

These early models essentially developed a new model that demonstrated how empathy (created via perspective-taking) could get an actor to help a target. Galinsky and Moskowitz’s contribution was that they expanded this to the level of empathy towards a broad category of people (the out-group) rather than a targeted person that the subject was observing or writing about (as Regan and Totten did (1975)).

Their work was also novel in the sense that it confirms suspicions that perspective taking occurs both consciously and non-consciously (sort of a dual-mechanism) — when one is asked direct questions about the target, they give responses consistent with perspective-taking — but the self-concept application occurs implicitly in a non-conscious effect — so you imagine how another person feels and also how you would feel in their situation.

A diagram of the theoretical mechanism in Galinsky & Moskowitz’s paper.

Intuitively, you might think that social media would be a place where perspective-taking occurs. This might well be a part of the story, but it it probably significantly more complex than that. For perspective-taking to work, you have to be exposed to others’ points of view. Because social media involves so many content-delivery algorithms, I would hypothesize that at this point, social media use doesn’t involve as much perspective-taking as it could (or did at points in the past).

This point may be supported by Davis (1983) who found a positive correlation between perspective-taking and higher self-esteem.

A second issue with perspective-taking on social media is the impact of cognitive load on the perspective-taking process. Social media is recognized to have a causal link between high usage and lower self-esteem. I have hypothesized in the past on this blog that this low self-esteem state results in people becoming more receptive to information that reinforces their beliefs and self-confidence (and plan to work on an experiment regarding this)— regardless of whether this information is true or false — and has spurred a deepening of political divides online.

The combination of our choices to consume information that makes us feel good and the delivery algorithms would seem to make it less likely that social media forces us to look at things from the perspective of someone different from us.

A screenshot from the Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed, Blue Feed” project.

Additionally, due to much of the research on perspective-taking and stereotype expression, we can infer that it’s possible the cognitive load that social media use puts on it’s user and the low of self-esteem aspect might even lead to an increase in stereotype expression (and other kinds of biased thinking) online.

(One might suggest that the vitriol experienced by many minorities and minority celebrities online is a direct result of this increase in expression, particularly when tied to the possibility of online anonymity).

Leslie Jones left Twitter after a a tremendous amount of racist vitriol was directed at her after her role in Ghostbusters.

Let’s examine where this comes from: past suggestions for stereotype expression reduction — which tried to actively prevent references to a stereotype from entering into consciousness — were successful at preventing immediate bias, but further research showed that this suppression of stereotypic thoughts ironically could produce these same thoughts (McRae, Bodenhausen, Milne & Jetten, 1994; Wegner, 1994), due partially to the fact that thought-suppression would increase cognitive load, and that people are more likely to regurgitate biased thinking when they are doing a cognitive task that takes more effort — despite the experiments successfully actively repressing stereotype manifestation initially — the studies noted this unconscious effect as particularly insidious.

This is where perspective-taking comes in. The aforementioned paper from Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) hypothesizes that perspective-taking can be used to remedy issues of bias — specifically stereotype expression and accessibility, group-based judgments, and in-group bias or favoritism.

The study and its experiments suggest the core mechanism acts upon a person (actor) A’s thought [the input], in order to produce less-biased (and possibly unbiased) thinking [the outcome]. The core mechanism (in the diagram above) itself occurs through the use of perspective-taking exercises, which cause person A’s thoughts towards the out-group to become more ‘self-like’ — and create overlap between their self-representation and their representation of the out-group (which had before been reduced to stereotypes). In this way, the mechanism is micro-to-micro, or action-formation (a concept explained by Herdstrom and Swedberg), in that the impact of this mechanism is only upon the thoughts of person A.

The mechanism also has a macro-level impact in that it changes A’s attitude towards an entire group (the out-group). It could also be said that the biased mentality is something that is a combination of both micro and macro factors — the societal and the personal — but this is a topic to delve into elsewhere.

All of this seems to suggest that perspective-taking could be a solution to helping stop much of the deeply hateful comments we see online, and the incredible amount of stereotype expression that plague social media networks. Part of this seems to simply be a lack of exposure to new ideas. This might start at the level of basic education, and the media and social networking sites certainly play a role — but there is also an element of personal responsibility to this issue that must be spoken for. We must somehow, for the sake of improving our political and social climate, motivate each other to engage in activities like perspective-taking. As some articles have pointed out, Facebook isn’t necessarily the thing that makes our Newsfeeds so politically biased — we are — because we make the choice, every day, what we ‘like’ or expose ourselves to.

We must be more curious. We must be more motivated to learn. At the crux of this problem is our clear lack of desire for knowledge about groups and topics that are different from us, and from our personal interests. We have to make a conscious effort to change — to take the difficult road — or risk being ruled by the impact of our comfortable choices.