It's a piece of advice we've all received at one time or another: Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. It's based on the assumption that seeing things from another person's perspective can open our minds and bring us closer together.
New research contradicts that axiom. It finds that temporarily adopting the point of view of a political opponent can actually harden our original positions.
"Despite its well-known benefits, perspective-taking can inhibit, rather than facilitate, openness to change," writes a research team led by psychologist Rhia Catapano of Stanford University. The process heightens awareness that political differences are often rooted in incongruous value systems—a realization that prompts people to reaffirm their own beliefs.
Sorry, but I have walked a mile in your shoes, and they are not a good fit.
In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers describe two studies that support their thesis. The first featured 484 users of the website Reddit, who were told they would be interacting with a fellow user who disagreed with them about a contentious political issue: universal health care.
Each received a brief description of the fictional fellow Redditer, and then created "an argument that the interaction partner might give for his position." Before they did so, half were instructed to "take a moment to consider the perspective of this individual, reflecting on their intentions and interests. Try to visualize clearly and vividly what this individual's life and experiences may be like, and how they may feel."
Afterwards, participants were asked how receptive they were to the argument they came up with for their opponent. They also estimated the degree to which that argument "was congruent with their own values, fit their worldview, and reflected their personal morals."
The researchers report that participants viewed their counter-argument less favorably if they had taken the perspective of the other party. This also proved true in a larger follow-up experiment, featuring 1,252 people recruited from an online panel who grappled with a different issue (a universal basic income).
The researchers found that, when people brainstorm counterarguments to their point of view, they generally do so while remaining true to their underlying value system.
But when they begin from the perspective of another, their argument often reflects what they perceive as their opponent's fundamentally different moral compass. Needless to say, they find that argument less persuasive, in that it conflicts with their core beliefs.
"People are more divided and more hostile toward those who disagree with them than they have been in decades," Catapano and her colleagues conclude. "Self-persuasion—having people generate counter-attitudinal arguments—seems a promising means to increasing openness to opposing views."
Still, unless you assume your political opponent has similar values to your own, "trying to 'put yourself in their shoes' can ultimately undermine self-persuasion," as it unwittingly emphasizes the deeper gulfs that separate us.
Apparently, other people's shoes tend to pinch.