Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Research - The Role of the Self in Perspective-Taking and Empathy


This is an interesting article on the role of the "self" in perspective-taking and empathy. The authors present four studies showing that observers are more empathic to the extent that they can easily imagine themselves in the target’s position, across a wide variety of need domains - i.e., being able to take the perspective of the other is essential to being more empathic.



University of Florida - Department of Psychology

Eckerd College

April 5, 2011
Social Cognition, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 153-180, 2012

Abstract:
When judging their empathic reactions for another person, people may rely on a relatively effortless, self-based heuristic: the ease with which they can imagine themselves in the other person’s position. We present four studies showing that observers are more empathic to the extent that they can easily imagine themselves in the target’s position, across a wide variety of need domains. Furthermore, we find that use of this “ease of self-simulation heuristic” (ESS), like other judgment heuristics, is conditioned by certain predictable factors: when deliberate attempts are made to take the perspective of the target person (Study 1), when the target’s needs are ambiguous (Study 2), and when the observer’s ability to engage in more effortful perspective-taking processes are constrained by performing a cognitively demanding second task (Study 3). In the discussion, we evaluate our findings in light of contemporary theorizing on the role of the self in perspective-taking and empathy.
Citation:
Chambers, John R. and Davis, Mark H. , The Role of the Self in Perspective-Taking and Empathy: Ease of Self-Simulation as a Heuristic for Inferring Empathic Feelings (April 5, 2011). Social Cognition, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 153-180, 2012. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2189421

Here is the introduction to the paper:
What is the role of the self in perspective-taking and empathy? This long-standing question has been addressed over the years by a variety of social theorists. Smith (1759), Mead (1934), and Piaget (1972) have all offered analyses that emphasize connections between self-awareness, self-knowledge, and our responses to others. In recent years, social psychologists have addressed this issue in a number of empirical ways. Davis and colleagues (Davis, Conklin, Smith, & Luce, 1996) found evidence that deliberate perspective-taking led observers to attribute more self related and primarily positive traits to targets—a “merging” of self and others.

They argued that perspective-taking activates self-knowledge, and the greater accessibility of such information then leads it to be used in characterizing others. In support of this interpretation, Davis et al. (2004) used a thought-listing procedure and found that perspective-taking observers reported more self-related thoughts. Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, and Gilovich (2004) implicate the self in perspective-taking via an “anchoring and adjustment” heuristic. That is, people infer others’ perspectives by starting from their own point of view and then making a series of adjustments to account for likely differences between the two. However, these adjustments require time, resources, and motivation, which are often in short supply. As a consequence, the adjustment process often stops short of where it should, and people’s estimates of others’ perspectives end up looking too much like their own.

Finally, Ames (2004) proposed a similarity-contingency model which argues that attempts to infer the internal states of others will often rely on one of two relatively effortless heuristics: projection and stereotyping. Perceived similarity to the target determines which heuristic is more likely to be used. People impute their own internal states to others who are perceived as similar (e.g., ingroup members), but employ stereotypes to infer the internal states of those who are perceived as dissimilar (e.g., outgroup members; see also Robbins & Krueger, 2005).

All of these approaches share a critical central feature: the assumption that the self is a template that observers apply to the target during perspective-taking. That is, all three approaches argue that aspects of self are in some way projected onto the target, and because such projection is relatively effortless, it constitutes a kind of inferential heuristic (e.g., Ames, 2004; Epley et al., 2004). However, this may not be the only role for the self. In this article, we argue for the operation of another self-related heuristic: ease of self-simulation. In brief, we argue that observers often use their own imagined experiences in the target’s situation as a heuristic for gauging their empathic reactions to the target, such that they will be more empathic if they can easily imagine themselves in that situation and less empathic if they cannot. We report the results of four experiments showing that observers employ this heuristic when judging their emotional and behavioral reactions to another person’s misfortunes, and we further illustrate some of the important situational variables moderating the use of this heuristic.
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