The second in a series of posts about things children should learn, but often don’t.
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at the fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider.”
–David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water”
Last November, I ran into an archaeology student named Kate at a party.
At first, I thought we had almost nothing in common. Her specialty was figuring out when ancient pottery was forged, and mine was figuring out what makes people change their minds. Still, I always enjoy meeting someone who cares as much about their work as Kate did, and we dug deeper and deeper into the strange history of her discipline.
At one point, Kate told me that, in the 1970s, academic archaeologists had split into two camps: traditional archaeology and post-processualism. Traditionalists use ever-more-precise techniques to describe and classify the objects they find: pottery, seeds, bones, and so on. Post-processualists aren’t blind to science, but they also aim to move beyond simple description (even at the risk of producing unscientific results).
To quote an actual archaeologist, post-processualism asks:
“How are we to conceive of society in a way that allows its constituent people to be active and creative in reproducing and changing their society?”
Kate told me about the movement’s ambitious, perhaps impossible goal: To see through the eyes of people who lived thousands of years ago, and to better understand the world of those long-ago humans by adopting their own frame of reference. In doing so, post-processualists are often wrong – it’s debatable whether their work even counts as “science” – but they at least make an honest effort.
“Wow!” I said. “That sounds really interesting. It’s just like how, in cognitive science, we…”
I stopped. Wait. What can I say here? How is it that I’ve learned nothing even remotely resembling this technique of post-processualism in four years of studying the mind?
The Forgotten Skill
I take mostly psychology and philosophy classes. Both disciplines have lots to say about perspective-taking. The Golden Rule seems to arise in every human culture, and with it, the implicit belief that others share our perspectives on the meaning of “being treated well”. In one of the most famous philosophy papers ever written, Thomas Nagel explores the nature of consciousness by taking the perspective of a bat. Psychologists have found that perspective-taking in many forms consistently makes people more empathetic and altruistic.
I’m familiar with this literature because I, too, study perspective-taking. In one study I co-designed, subjects were asked to take the perspective of various characters in a moral dilemma before deciding how they’d resolve that dilemma. And I’m conducting a literature review on techniques charities can use to increase donations – which includes getting donors to take others’ perspectives.
Trouble is, for all the time cognitive scientists spend studying the effects of perspective-taking on other people, we spend almost no time at all practicing the skill ourselves. Some of philosophy’s most famous thought experiments ask us to think from the perspective of theoretical beings – Nagel’s bat, or Mary, who lives in a world without color – but those are meant to prove a point, rather than to help us become better people.
I don’t know whether post-processualists actually engage in rigorous perspective-taking practice, but if they do, they’d seem to be ahead of my disciplines. And I suspect that other “soft” majors – History? Women’s Studies? – might spend a lot more time on this skill.
Whatever the case may be, I’ve somehow stumbled through life without receiving any formal training in perspective-taking. For the last fifteen years or so, ever since I developed the cognitive faculties necessary to actually see through another’s eyes, I’ve been guessing how other people see the world. And I’ve often done a terrible job.
Teaching The Lesson Of Perspective
Schools give us many skills. We learn to add, subtract, and multiply; to read and write; to program computers and put on condoms.
But we don’t do much in the way of perspective-taking, outside of the occasional essay written from the point of view of a character in a book. Sometimes, teachers will ask us: “And how do you think Johnny felt when you took away his Legos?” As third-graders, we’ll respond with the right words, but we probably won’t really have a clue how it is to be Johnny. Heck, we barely know how it is to be ourselves at that age.
Still, I think this skill – looking through another person’s eyes, grasping how they feel on the inside, understanding what makes them tick – is teachable. After all, most of us learn to do this when we make a best friend or build a romantic relationship. And we’ve got better communications technology today than ever before, which should give us a better chance at showing others what it’s like to be us.
If perspective-taking training was a real and proven thing, I’d go to the classes for sure. Imagine the benefits of life after training:
- When our boss yells at us, we don’t just get angry; we think carefully about what kind of day she might be having so that we can help fix the underlying problem.
- When a friend of ours tells us that he suffers from depression, but we’ve never suffered from depression ourselves, we don’t just think of times when we were sad and imagine that all sadness is the same. Instead, we realize that our friend feels something we can’t quite understand firsthand and listen carefully.
- We learn to take the advice of David Foster Wallace, and remember the deep humanity of the people we meet in line at the grocery store – even when our instincts fight against it.
A world filled with trained perspective-takers is a softer, kinder, more forgiving world. It’s a world where, when someone cuts you off in traffic, your first reaction isn’t “F**K!” but instead: “You’re in quite a rush! I hope everything’s all right.”
It might also be a fantasy world, but let’s dream for a while. Here’s how I’d try to make it happen.
The Classes We Could Teach
I suggest teaching a week-long unit on perspective (~5 hours) at least once a year. Here are some exercises which might make that possible, and which go beyond the good first steps we usually take to encourage perspective-taking (like reading books about people with very different lives):
What Is It Like To Be You?: At a workshop held by the Center For Applied Rationality, I spent one of my best hours sitting in a circle with ten other people. One at a time, we delivered a minute-long speech about what it was like to be ourselves. The “theme” of one person’s perspective was anxiety; another’s was curiosity. The most respected person in the room, someone we all admired greatly, spoke of deep dissatisfaction with their own progress and productivity: “I feel like anything I don’t do isn’t going to get done, but I also feel like there’s no way I’ll ever be able to do as much as I know I should.”
In that single minute, we learned far more about each other than we could have by discussing hobbies or favorite flavors of ice cream. Young children might not be able to select “themes”, but even if all they do is talk about how they feel that day, that minute… it’s a step in the right direction.
Talking To Yourself: Two students, each wearing Google Glass, discuss or debate some question with each other. Then, each views the other’s video – a chance to see how they appear to other people, from their facial expressions to the tone of their voice. The single most common fact about the people we meet is that they are interacting with us; to understand how they feel on the inside, we’ll need to understand how we look on the outside.
Side-Switching Debate: Students all take sides on a controversial issue. Then, each is forced to switch sides and support the opposite of their own beliefs – perhaps against an opponent with the same restriction. This is a great way to teach key perspective-taking techniques like “steelmanning” or “passing the Ideological Turing Test”.
Guess And Check: Students have conversations with a partner, trying to learn as much as they can. Then, a “quiz” is given: Each student answers questions – some the same and some new – as though they were their partner. The students then compare answers, and see where they guessed wrong about how their partner would respond. Finally, they use the results to figure out which areas of their perspective-taking skill need the most work.
Further Adventures In Perspective-Taking
I can’t recommend “This Is Water” highly enough. David Foster Wallace was a genius of perspective-taking (a common element in his novels and stories). Even if you’ve read the speech already, do it again: you might benefit from a refresher. I certainly did.
As far as perspective-taking goes – and, in my opinion, as far as movies go – you can’t do much better than Life in a Day, which shows snippets of hundreds of individual lives from around the world.
If you like this topic, you should read this article about a person whose job is to take on a very different perspective (that of a child who has been sexually molested) and act it out as accurately as possible.