The Surprising Ability of Putting Ourselves in Others’ Shoes
Let’s play a game.
This is the story of Anne and Sally. They are friends and they have a box and a basket. They also have a marble to play with. One day, Sally and Anne were playing. Sally decided to put the marble in the box and went outside, where she could not see or hear anything from inside. A moment later, Anne decided to take the marble from the box and put it in the basket.
Now I ask you: When Sally comes back, where will she go look to take the marble, the box or the basket?
Easy, right? She hid it in the box and didn’t see Anne put it in the basket so she will go find it in the box, although she won’t find it there.
I’m sure you got the answer right because this isn’t a game for adults. It’s a game for kids. In psychology, it’s called a false-belief task.
Can children take the perspective of others?
The American Psychological Association defines a false-belief task as:
“A type of task […] in which children must infer that another person does not possess knowledge that they possess.”
With this paradigm, researchers can measure the ability a subject has on taking the perspective of others. What’s interesting about this type of task is that children under 4 years are unable to pass the test. They can’t infer that there may be knowledge they have that others don’t. Or at least that’s what scientists thought 2 decades ago.
In recent years, there is been increasing evidence that shows that infants younger than 2 years can pass false-belief tasks whereas other children (until 4 y.o) struggle. You may be thinking that this task can’t be used with infants that age because they won’t understand the game. That’s true, but researchers have defined other non-verbal tasks to measure perspective-taking.
Now, how is it possible for infants (<2 y.o) to succeed at perspective-taking whereas older children up to 4 y.o fail?
Victoria Southgate, professor of psychology at the University of Copenhagen, may shed some light on the topic with an interesting new perspective.
We are born with an altercentric bias
This fancy term means that infants tend to value more the perspective of people that surrounds them instead of their own. Why does this happen? Southgate exposes two arguments:
- Infants value co-witnessed events more because its’ crucial for their social development.
- A well-developed self-perspective is lacking until 2 years of age.
At first, infants give high value to the perspective of others and, by lacking a competing self-perspective, are perfectly able to solve false-belief tasks. They simply answer from the perspective of the other person.
However, older children fail because they already have a stronger self-perspective. Thus, they have two competing perspectives (self- and other-perspective) and they have to choose. The problem here is that the mental machinery needed to solve this competition isn’t well developed in children. It’s what scientists call executive functions, and it develops at 4–5 years.
As adults, we are able to find balance between both, although most of the time we experience the world through our self-perspective. Thus, the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes goes through 3 stages:
- Age 0–2 years: We can’t be egocentric.
- Age 2–4 years: We are full egocentric.
- Age >4–5 years: We start to learn to balance the self and the other’s perspective.
Southgate’s theory implies that infants are more altercentric than older children and adults (they value more other’s perspectives). And, at the same time, they are less egocentric (they don’t have a well-developed self-perspective). When we are infants we are better suited to put ourselves in other’s shoes and we lose this ability when we get to 2–4 y.o because we start to see the world through our own lenses.
As adults, our self-perspective takes a dominant role most of the time and the executive functions make sure of it. It’s why we feel that everything we experience starts and ends in ourselves. However, we are still able to take the perspective of others to understand their point of view or empathize with them.
Although we don’t do it as much as we should.