Perspective-taking is the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual. There is a vast amount of scientific literature that has looked at perspective-taking and suggests that it is crucial to human development, and that it may lead to a variety of beneficial outcomes. Perspective-taking is related to other theories and concepts including theory of mind and empathy. Both theory and research have suggested ages when children are able to begin to perspective-take and how that ability develops over time. Research has also suggested that there may be deficits in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism on the ability of individuals to engage in perspective-taking. Additionally, studies have been conducted to assess the brain regions involved in perspective-taking. These studies suggest that several regions may be involved, including the prefrontal cortex and the precuneus. Additionally, studies suggest that perspective-taking may be possible in some non-human animals.
Perspective-taking is the process by which an individual views a situation from another's point-of-view. Within the scientific literature, perspective-taking has been defined along two dimensions: perceptual and conceptual. Perceptual perspective-taking is defined as the ability to understand how another person experiences things through their senses (i.e. visually or auditorily). Most of this literature has focused on visual perspective-taking: the ability to understand the way another person sees things in physical space. Conceptual perspective-taking is defined as the ability to comprehend and take on the viewpoint of another person's psychological experience (i.e. thoughts, feelings and attitudes). For instance, one can visualize the viewpoint of a taller individual (perceptual/visual) or reflect upon another's point of view on a particular concept (conceptual).
Theory of mind is the awareness that people have individual psychological states that differ from one another. Within perspective-taking literature, the term perspective-taking and theory of mind are sometimes used interchangeably and some studies use theory of mind tasks in order to test if someone is engaging in perspective-taking. Some research, however, has highlighted that the two concepts are related but different, with theory of mind being the recognition that another person has different thoughts and feelings and perspective-taking being the ability to take on that other person’s point of view.
Empathy has been defined as the ability for someone to share the same emotions another person is having. Empathy and perspective-taking have been studied together in a variety of ways. Within the scientific literature, there are not always clear lines of distinction between empathy and perspective-taking, and the two concepts are often studied in conjunction with one another and viewed as related and similar concepts. Some research has distinguished the two concepts and pointed out their differences, while other literature has theorized that perspective-taking is one component of empathy.
Previous studies have assessed the age at which humans are capable of visual perspective-taking. Various studies within the literature have drawn different conclusions.
In 1956, Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder conducted a study to assess the visual perspective-taking abilities of young children which has come to be known as the three mountain problem. This study found that by the ages of 9-10, children were able to successfully complete the three mountain problem and seemed able to understand that when someone is standing in a different location (i.e. on a different mountain top) they would have a different view. However, children ages 8 and under struggled with this task.
Since this classic study, a number of studies have suggested that visual perspective-taking may be possible earlier than the age of 9. For example, a study that used a different method to assess visual perspective-taking suggested that children may be able to successfully visually perspective-take by the age of 4.5 years old. In this study, 4.5 year old children were able to understand that someone sitting closer to a picture would have a better view of that picture. However, these researchers found that children who were 3 and 3.5 years old struggled with this task which led them to conclude that that the age range of 3 to 4.5 years old could be crucial in perspective-taking development.
Additionally, developmental psychologist John H. Flavell suggested that there are two levels of visual perspective-taking that emerge as children develop. Level 1 perspective-taking is defined as the ability to understand that someone else may see things differently and what another person can see in physical space. For example, one could understand that, while an object may be obstructing their own view, from where another person is standing they can see a cat in the room. Level 2 perspective-taking, however, is defined as the understanding that another person can see things differently in physical space and how those objects are organized from that other person’s point of view. For example, a person can understand that from another person’s point of view they can see a dog to the right but from their own point of view the dog is to the left.
Studies have since been done to examine when children are able to demonstrate level 1 and level 2 perspective-taking. These studies have shown that children at 24 months old and 14 months old may be able to engage in level 1 perspective-taking. Research also suggests that children can engage in level 2 perspective-taking as early as 2.5 years old.
Studies have also suggested that visual perspective-taking ability improves from childhood to adulthood. For example, in comparing 6-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds and adults (averaging at 19 years of age) researchers found that as people’s age increased, visual perspective-taking tasks could be done with more accuracy and speed.
In Piaget's theory of cognitive development, he suggests that perspective-taking begins in the concrete operational stage (third stage) which ranges from ages 7–12. It is within this stage that the idea of decentration is introduced as a cognitive ability. Decentration was defined as the ability to take into account the way others perceive various aspects of a given situation.
Another developmental perspective-taking theory was created by Robert L. Selman and entitled social perspective-taking theory (also known as Role-taking theory). This theory suggests that there are five developmental stages involved in perspective-taking ranging from ages 3–6 (characterized by egocentrism or an inability to think of things from another’s point of view) to teenagers and adults (where people can understand another person’s point of view and this understanding is informed by recognizing another person’s environment and culture). The theory suggests that as humans age from childhood to adulthood their ability to perspective-take improves. Studies by Selman and colleagues suggest that children are able to perspective-take in different ways at different ages.
Visual perspective-taking studies that focus on brain regions are generally performed by collecting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants perform perspective-taking tasks. For example, a participant may be shown a picture of another person with objects around them and asked to take on the viewpoint of that person and indicate the number of objects they see (Level 1 visual perspective-taking) and if the objects are located to the right or left of the other person (level 2 visual perspective-taking). While the participant is completing this task they are also having an fMRI scan.
A meta-analysis that looked at existing fMRI research on visual perspective-taking as of 2013 suggested that several areas of the brain have clustered activation during these perspective-taking tasks. These areas included the left prefrontal cortex, the precuneus, and the left cerebellum. Studies suggest these areas of the brain are involved in decision making, visual imagery, and attention respectively.
Research assessing the brain regions involved in perceptual perspective-taking also suggests that multiple brain areas are potentially involved. Studies have been conducted by administering a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and asking participants to engage in perspective-taking tasks. For example, in one study, participants who were all medical students were asked to consider the knowledge base someone who was not in the medical field would have on a list of medical questions.
Studies have suggested that regions that are activated during cognitive perspective-taking include the right parietal lobe and the posterior cingulate cortex posterior cingulate cortex among others. The literature also points out that some areas seem to be involved both when people imagine themselves and when they imagine the perspective of others. For example, when participants were asked to imagine themselves engaging in an activity versus imagining another person engaging in that activity the precuneus and the supplementary motor area (SMA) were activated, suggesting visual imagery and motor movement thoughts were involved in both tasks.
Research has highlighted that it may be more difficult for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to perspective-take. ADHD research has shown that children with this diagnosis have shown impairments in attention and communication. Perspective-taking research has found that children with ADHD have a harder time taking on the viewpoint of others than children who do not have ADHD.
There is evidence to suggest that children with autism may be able to engage in visual perspective-taking but may have difficulty engaging in conceptual perspective-taking. For example, a study that compared perspective-taking scores in children who had been diagnosed with autism as compared to children who did not have this diagnosis found no significant difference in scores on level 1 and level 2 visual perspective-taking. However, the study found it was much harder for autistic children to engage in conceptual perspective-taking tasks.
Some studies have been done to explore potential interventions that could help improve perspective-taking abilities in children with autism. These studies suggested that the use of video may be helpful in teaching perspective-taking skills in children with autism. For example, an intervention study with autistic children, found that showing the children a video of someone engaging in perspective-taking tasks and explaining their actions led to improved perspective-taking ability.
An abundance of literature has linked perspective-taking abilities with other behaviors. Much of this literature specifically focuses on perceptual perspective-taking (or taking on the viewpoint of another person's thoughts, feelings and attitudes).
Many studies have associated perspective-taking with empathy. Psychologist Mark Davis suggested that empathy consists of multiple dimensions. To assess this, Davis developed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). The IRI consists of four subscales: fantasy, empathic concern, personal distress, and perspective-taking. The perspective-taking subscale asks participants to report how likely they are to engage in trying to see things from another person’s point of view. Studies using this widely cited measure have found that perspective-taking is associated with many prosocial behaviors. One study, which assessed cross-cultural data in 63 countries using the IRI, concluded that perspective-taking and empathic concern was associated with volunteerism and agreeableness as well as self-esteem and life satisfaction.
Additionally, research has suggested that perspective-taking leads to empathic concern. This research further suggests that in looking at perspective-taking and empathy it is important to distinguish between two different types of perspective-taking. The research posits that there is a difference between thinking of how one would act, feel and behave if placed in someone else’s situation and thinking of the way that another person thinks, feels, and behaves in their own situation. The results of this research reveals that thinking of how another person behaves and feels in their own situation leads to feelings of empathy. However, thinking of how one would behave in another person’s situation leads to feelings of empathy as well as distress.
Research has also found that in interactions involving negotiations, taking on the perspective of another person and empathizing with them may have differential outcomes. One study found that people who engaged in perspective-taking were more effective in making a deal with another person and finding innovative agreements that satisfied both parties as compared to those who empathized with someone else.
Research has revealed that perspective-taking was associated with sympathy toward others and prosocial behavior in children as young as 18 months old. Another study looking at sibling interactions found that toddlers who were older siblings were more likely to help take care of their younger siblings when they demonstrated higher perspective-taking abilities.
Perspective-taking has also been associated with creativity. For example, perspective-taking has been found to increase the amount of creative ideas generated in team activities. Another study suggested that perspective-taking could lead to more creative and innovative ideas particularly in participants who were internally driven to complete a task.
Many studies within perspective-taking literature has focused on the potential effects of perspective-taking on the perceptions of outgroup members and has found that there are many potential benefits to perspective-taking. Literature on perspective-taking and bias and stereotyping is generally done by asking participants to take the perspective of another person who is different from them in certain domains (i.e. asking young adult participants to take on the perspective of an elderly person or asking White participants to take on the perspective of a Black person as seen in a photograph or video). These studies have shown that perspective-taking can lead to reduced stereotyping of outgroup members, improved attitudes towards others, and increased helping behavior of outgroup members. Research also suggests that perspective-taking can lead to a reduction of in-group favoritism. Additionally, research that focused on implicit (or unconscious) biases found that perspective-taking can lead to reduced implicit bias scores (as measured by the Implicit-association test) as well as more recognition of subtle discrimination.
Research has looked at the potential differences that could arise when one is having a conversation with another person whom they agree with versus having a conversation with someone with whom they disagree. This research found that participants who interacted with people with whom they disagreed had enhanced perspective-taking ability and could better remember the conversation.
Some researchers have suggested that there may be some drawbacks to perspective-taking. For example, studies have found that asking people to engage in perspective-taking tasks can lead to increased stereotyping of the target if the target is deemed as having more stereotypic qualities and adopting stereotypic behaviors of outgroup members.
Although studies have been done to assess if nonhuman animals are able to successfully engage in perspective-taking the literature has not drawn consistent conclusions. Many of these studies assess perspective-taking by training animals on specific tasks or by measuring the consistency of animals to follow the eye gaze of humans. Researchers highlight that being able to successful follow another's eye gaze could indicate that the animal is aware that the human is seeing and paying attention to something that is different from what they see.
One study that assessed the perspective-taking abilities in spider monkeys and capuchin monkeys found that these primates successfully performed eye gazing tasks which led researchers to conclude that the monkeys demonstrated some ability to consider another person’s viewpoint. However, another study that utilized an eye gazing method in assessing perspective-taking found that Rhesus monkeys were unsuccessful at eye gazing tasks.
Other studies suggest that dogs have complex social understanding. One study assessed the potential for perspective-taking in dogs by telling a dog that they were not allowed to eat a treat and then placing the food in a location that the dog could reach. These researchers found that dogs were more likely to eat the treat after being instructed not to if there was a barrier that hid the dog from the instructor. Additionally, dogs were less likely to eat the treat if the barrier was of smaller size or had a window in it. However, this study also showed that dogs struggled in other tasks that focused on the dog's own visual attention. These researchers suggest that this study provides evidence that dogs may be aware of other's visual perspectives.
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