Putting Yourself In Someone Else’s Shoes (or Sandals)

We know from research that: there are two types of empathy – cognitive empathy and emotional or affective empathy, different parts of our brain are activated when we are using one versus the other, and each has a different impact on our behavior.

For example, Gilin et al. conducted some studies to determine the specific impact of each of these two types of empathy.  They defined cognitive empathy as perspective-taking, while emotional empathy is “the affective capacity to emotionally connect with others and experience sympathy and concern for others.”  Their hypothesis was that these two different types of empathy would work in different situations.  When you need to understand an opponent’s strategic intent, then cognitive empathy would be more effective than emotional empathy.  With tasks that require collaboration with others, on the other hand, emotional empathy would be more effective.  Their findings support their hypothesis and they conclude:

“ … Perspective-taking and (emotional) empathy can each promote understanding that can lead to individual and joint competitive gains, but only when the underlying structure or content of the task requires that particular competency.”  (p. 11)      

For global managers, both types are critical; in this piece, I’d like to focus on cognitive empathy.  Cognitive empathy, the ability to recognize and understand another person’s point of view and emotional state, is (as mentioned above) sometimes called “perspective-taking.”  When we are in a different culture, understanding how people from other cultures view things is obviously important.  Goleman has suggested that cognitive empathy is an outgrowth of self-awareness, and I think that makes a lot of sense.  For global managers, this also means being aware of how one’s own culture impacts your own behavior.  Managers who tend to be ethnocentric, and who believe that their style of managing is superior to other cultures’ styles, will find it hard to develop cognitive empathy because they may not even be aware that their style is at least partly driven by cultural assumptions.  

Specifically, cognitive empathy helps global managers by: 

  1. Decreasing stereotyping,
  2. Helping to promote pro-social behavior or willingness to help,
  3. Improving their ability to understand accurately the thoughts and feelings of others.

Let’s take the first benefit.  Research by Galinsky and Moskowitz has shown that perspective-taking might be a more effective strategy than stereotype suppression for decreasing stereotyping.  In an interesting set of experiments, here is what they did and what they found.  In their first experiment, participants were shown a photo of an elderly man and asked to write an essay describing a day in his life.  One third of the participants were given no explicit instructions, one third were asked to suppress any stereotypes, and the remaining third were told to take the perspective of the individual in the photograph when writing their essay.  The second group was told that “previous research has demonstrated that thoughts and impressions are consistently influenced by stereotypic preconceptions, and therefore you should actively try to avoid thinking about the photographed target in such a manner.”  The third group was told to “imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person, looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.”

Then they were asked to write an essay about a second elderly man whose photo they were shown.  As a third task, the participants were shown a photo of a young African-American man and asked to write a third essay.  The researchers wanted to find out not only whether perspective-taking or stereotype suppression was more powerful, but also whether the experimental instructions would generalize to a different social group.

Raters who did not know which of the essays came from which experimental condition rated both the overall stereotypicality of the contents as well as its overall valence.  The former is a standard measure used in research on stereotype suppression.  Valence was measured to determine how positive the participants rated the evaluations of the target.  What they found was that perspective-taking not only reduced the expression of stereotypical content, but also increased the expression of positive content, while stereotype suppression only affected the former and not the valence.  For the second photo, both perspective-takers and suppressors wrote less-stereotypically based essays than did control participants, while perspective-takers expressed more positive evaluations of the target than did suppressors and control participants.  No differences in stereotypical content were found for the third photo, because, as the researchers learned in a debrief, participants were sensitive to stereotyping by race (wishing to be politically correct, perhaps).  However, perspective-takers expressed more positive evaluations towards the African-American target compared with the elderly targets.

The researchers conclude that,

“ … perspective-taking is a successful strategy for debiasing social thought.  Perspective-taking tended to increase the expression of positive evaluations of the target, reduced the expression of stereotypic content, and prevented the hyperaccessibility of stereotype construct.”  (p. 720)

Now, let’s take the second benefit of cognitive empathy.  Based on several research studies, what happens in perspective-taking is that by considering another person’s perspective, we see that we and the other person are not so different after all:  “Perspective-taking results in the target becoming more ‘self-like’; after perspective-taking, the cognitive structures for the self and the target share more common elements, resulting in a merger of self and other.” (Galinsky and Ku, p. 596)

Some recent research has shown that perspective-taking helps to improve overall attitudes and evaluations of the target person’s group.  For example, in follow-up studies also using the photo of an elderly man, Galinsky and Ku found that those who were primed to take the elderly man’s perspective also started to evaluate the elderly more positively than a control group.  As the researchers pointed out, however, these findings may not generalize to collectivist cultures where individuals are “more likely to engage in outgroup derogation and intergroup bias … and more likely to be (overly) generous when dealing with friends.” (p. 602)

In another series of experiments conducted in Singapore and the United Kingdom, Wang and her colleagues (2014) built on this research and found that perspective-taking increased willingness to engage in contact with negatively-stereotyped targets, such as an “Ah Beng” (or local hooligan, in Singapore) and the homeless in the United Kingdom.  In one of these studies, participants were shown a photograph of a homeless man; those in the perspective-taking condition were asked to “take the perspective of the individual in the photograph and imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person.” (p. 3) Participants in the control condition were simply asked to write a brief passage describing a typical day in the life of the individual in the photograph.  After this task, they were then shown a photograph of a different individual.  In the same-target-group condition, participants were shown a photograph of another homeless man.  In the different-target-group condition, they were shown a photograph of an African-American.  Consistent with results from previous research, they found that those who were primed to the perspective-taking condition were more willing to engage in contact with the target group (although not necessarily with a different target group).

A third benefit of perspective-taking, especially critical for global leaders, is the improvement in the accuracy of one’s understanding of what the other person might be thinking or feeling.  Ickes and his colleagues have even developed a methodology to study what they call empathic accuracy.  They first videotape target participants while they talk about some event, topic, or problem.  Then these participants watch their own videotape, stopping the tape when they remember some thought or feeling while they were talking.  They write these thoughts or feelings down and the times when they actually took place in the videotape.  Perceivers then watch the video, which is stopped at the times when the target had recalled the thought or feeling.  These perceivers then write down what they believe the target was thinking or feeling that these specific times.  The researchers then compare the perceivers’ responses to what the targets wrote down to obtain a measure of empathic accuracy.

Ickes and his colleagues found that the perceiver’s accuracy in understanding another person is not always a function of familiarity with the other person or his or her experiences, but also on the perceiver’s motivation.  This is somewhat reassuring for those of us working globally, for it suggests that our desire and interest in the other person are strong predictors in how well we can accurately assess their thoughts and feelings. 

One implication here is that global managers who believe that being empathic is important in their role may actually be more motivated to be empathic and can in fact be quite accurate in their perceptions of others’ thoughts and feelings – certainly a key advantage for succeeding as a global leader!

Are there limits to perspective-taking, especially when the person you are interacting with is very dissimilar to you in so many ways?  For example, say that you are a highly-educated, young Dutch female executive dealing with an elderly Nigerian male working in an oil pipeline.  How likely is it that you would be able to take the Nigerian’s perspective?  In my experience, with some effort, this can still work.  And in fact, some research supports this.  Lamm et al. used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how subjects would react to patients under different conditions.  They found that empathy can be achieved, although with more effort from their cognitive executive functions.

So let’s say that you are faced with a cross-cultural situation that you may not fully understand, for example, individuals who are strangely quiet at a meeting you are conducting, or a team from a subsidiary who is continually late in meeting deadlines.  You could of course ask them questions to try to determine what might be causing the problem.  But you could also switch on your cognitive empathy mind-set by using some of these trigger questions to prime your perspective-taking: 

  • Imagine looking at this situation through their eyes and being in their shoes – how would you view this situation?
  • What might this situation look like from their point of view?  How would they explain this? 
  • What might be going on in their minds that could explain why they are behaving this way? 
  • What might some factors be in their situation that might drive them to behave in this way?

Galinksy, A. & Moskowitz, G.  (2000).  Perspective-taking:  Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708-724.

Galinsky, A. & Ku, G.  (2004).  The effects of perspective-taking on prejudice:  The moderating role of self-evaluation.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(5), 594-604.

Gilin, D. et al.  (2012).  When to Use Your Head and When to Use Your Heart:  The Differential Value of Perspective-Taking Versus Empathy in Competitive Interactions.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(1), 3-16.

Goleman, D.  (2005).  Emotional Intelligence.  New York:  Bantam Books.

Ickes, W., Gesn, P., & Graham, T.  (2000).  Gender differences in empathic accuracy:  Differential ability or differential motivation?  Personal Relationships, 7, 95-100.

Lamm, C., Meltzoff, A., & Decety, J.  (2010).  How do we empathize with someone who is not like us?  A functional magnetic resonance imaging study.  Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 362-376. Wang, C., Tai, K. Ku, G., & Galinsky, A.  (2014).  Perspective-taking increases willingness to engage in intergroup contact.  PLOS One, 9(1) pp. 1-8.