Perspective-taking—viewing the world from something other than one’s habitual vantage point—covers a broad range from the literal to metaphorical. One can literally take a visual perspective by physically positioning oneself and gazing in a particular direction, often replicating another person’s physical position and directional gaze in an attempt to see what that person sees (e.g., “Stand here and you can see the tower between the hills”). Alternatively, one can imagine a particular visual perspective (e.g., “These steps must look very tall to someone as short as a toddler”) or mentally construct a visual perspective (e.g., “Let’s see … facing east, I can see the house, so if I were to face west, I would see the street”). However, perspective-taking often goes beyond the visual, referring to attempts to adopt an overall mindset that differs from one’s default mindset (“Imagine what the rabbi must have thought when the caterers brought out all those trays of ham!” or “I can see your point—you could have used more time to prepare”).
A cornerstone of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s (1896–1980) theory of cognitive development was that human infants have just one perspective— their own. They are profoundly egocentric: unable to even comprehend that someone else may have a different mental experience from their own and thus unable to take another person’s perspective. As young children develop, they not only learn that other perspectives exist, but also how to take those perspectives and use them. Children who can recognize that other people have their own minds and can thus have other perspectives are said to have developed a theory of mind. In a typically developing child, a coherent theory of mind emerges between ages three and five (although rudiments of this skill, such as following another person’s gaze to understand what he or she is looking at, appear earlier). Theory of mind and perspective-taking deficits are among the hallmark symptoms of autism, a psychological disorder that usually appears early in life (other psychological disorders or brain injuries can also produce perspective-taking deficits).
Some scholars have argued that a true understanding of theory of mind may be unique to the human species. However, even for adult humans, perspective-taking requires effort and presents a challenge. Easy or perfectly accurate perspective-taking is hindered by the “other minds problem”—that is, we can never know from a firstperson perspective exactly how things are perceived by another person with another mind.
Perspective-taking has a variety of social implications. In both children and adults, perspective-taking is associated with greater empathy, prosocial behavior, and more favorable treatment of the person (or group) whose perspective is taken. The exact mechanism by which perspective-taking produces these outcomes is debated, with a variety of options proposed, including suppression of the usual “self” -ish perspective, a heightened desire to help the other person, attempts to relieve negative feelings aroused by perceiving another person in distress, and the cognitive merging of one’s representation of the self with that of the person whose perspective is being taken. Research consistently demonstrates that instructing people to take the perspective of another person in need leads to increased feelings of compassion and empathy and often results in offers to help the person whose perspective was taken. However, perspective-taking can also be used for malevolent purposes (e.g., anticipating a rival’s next move and taking steps to thwart it).
Since Piaget’s day, developmental researchers (e.g., Janet Astington, Simon Baron-Cohen, John Flavell, Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, Joseph Perner, and Henry Wellman) have continued to ask questions about perspective-taking and its relationship to other aspects of human development. Social psychologists have also pursued perspective-taking and its effects on social behavior (notably Daniel Batson’s work on links between perspective-taking and altruistic behavior, and William Ickes’s work on adults’ accuracy in guessing others’ thoughts). Most recently, neuroscientists (e.g., Jean Decety) have used brain-imaging techniques to explore perspective-taking.
Flavell, John H. 1992. Perspectives on Perspective Taking. In Piaget’s Theory: Prospects and Possibilities, eds. Harry Beilin and Peter B. Pufall, 107–139. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Malle, Bertram F., and Sara D. Hodges, eds. 2005. Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others. New York: Guilford.
Sara D. Hodges