Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, realized that being a good leader required being a good mind reader. “I see my task as serving the majority of people,” he said in an interview to Forbes. “The question is, how do you find out what they want?”
For many business leaders who want to understand the minds of their employees, customers, or competitors, the answer seems obvious: Do some perspective-taking. That is, do your best to deliberately try to see things from the other person’s point of view, imagining that you were in his or her shoes.
In his classic best seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie describes a key principle: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” Carnegie suggested this was the most important principle in the entire book: “If out of reading this book you get just one thing — an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle…it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.”
Social psychological research has demonstrated many benefits of perspective-taking — increased altruism, decreased stereotyping, and a stronger social bond with another person. But here’s the thing: Almost no research has investigated whether trying to take the perspective of another person actually increases your insight into what they truly think, feel, or want.
We recently explored this through a series of 25 experiments with a total of 2,816 people (undergrads, MBA students, Mechanical Turk workers, and other working adults) from the U.S. and Israel. We asked them to predict the thoughts, feelings, and preferences of other people, ranging from complete strangers to spouses. And we found that perspective-taking did not have the effect it’s often expected to.
Our first series of experiments assessed judgments of strangers. In some studies, participants viewed photos of other people and assessed their emotions based on their eyes, facial expressions, and body postures. In others, participants watched videos of people and judged whether their expressions were fake or genuine or whether their statements were true. In each of these experiments, one group of participants was asked to engage in perspective-taking — to “try to see things from that person’s point of view, as if you were that person.” Participants in the control group simply answered each question.
In contrast to the common intuition that perspective-taking increases understanding, we found that people in our perspective-taking condition were slightly less accurate in their judgments than people in the control condition. For example, in experiments in which participants viewed photos of people expressing different emotions, those encouraged to take the perspective of the people in the pictures guessed the emotions less accurately, on average, than those in the control condition. Perspective-taking did not help accuracy. If anything, it hurt it.
Of course, these were judgments of strangers. whose perspective might have been hard to assess. Perhaps perspective-taking is more helpful when you are considering someone whose perspective you know well, such as a friend or a spouse, or in a context where more is known about another’s point of view.
Our next series of experiments asked people to predict the opinions and preferences of either a stranger they had just met or their romantic partner. This included predicting whether the person liked particular activities, jokes, videos, or art, or whether they were likely to agree with certain opinions. Once again, participants who were asked to engage in perspective-taking did slightly worse than those given no specific instructions.
For example, in one experiment in which romantic partners predicted how much their partner liked or disliked activities (for example, “go out to a pub or bar,” “play tennis”), those encouraged to take the perspective of their partner guessed less correctly, on average, than those in the control condition. Perspective-taking may indeed work some wonders, but increasing insight into another’s mind does not seem to be among them.
If perspective-taking doesn’t help, what can you do to better understand others? Our research indicates that you gain understanding about someone only when you acquire new information from them. Instead of perspective-taking, you need to do some perspective-getting.
We tested this idea in a final experiment that included three types of conditions: control, perspective-taking, and perspective-getting. We asked 20 people in our perspective-getting condition to ask their romantic partners about their opinions on various topics (“I would like to spend a year in Paris or London,” “I have somewhat old-fashioned tastes and habits”) before they guessed how their partner rated those same topics themselves. We found that this perspective-getting significantly increased accuracy, as compared with those who engaged in perspective-taking and those in the control condition. If you want to know what another person thinks about an issue, perhaps the better strategy is simply asking them.
This may seem obvious in the abstract, but it was not so obvious to our participants in this experiment. Although asking one’s partner about their opinions increased accuracy dramatically, participants’ confidence in their judgments did not vary across conditions. Participants who interviewed their partners did not believe they guessed more questions right than participants in our other conditions. People didn’t seem to be aware of how effective their strategy was for understanding another person.
The power of perspective-getting to understand customers wasn’t lost on IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad. In IKEA’s First :59 campaign, company representatives reached out to customers to ask them about challenges in their morning routine. They found out that 75% of their respondents said they did not have a regular morning routine, 49% of parents to young children said that getting the kids prepared for the day caused the most stress, and 72% said that a stressful morning affected the rest of their day. IKEA’s next step in the campaign was to offer expert advice to their customers, using IKEA products, to help find solutions to problems raised by the customers themselves. For example, a couple of tips to help you “master your mornings” included packing the children’s lunches the night before using IKEA lunch boxes, and using “get ready buckets” — a plastic caddy that includes hygiene essentials that the child can carry to the bathroom.
IKEA’s approach squares with the findings of our research. An attempt to understand the mind of another person, whether a stranger, your spouse, or your customer, is unlikely to benefit from imagining yourself in that person’s shoes and guessing what that person feels or wants. Accurately understanding other people requires getting perspective, not simply taking it. To understand the mind of another person, we need to rely on our ears more than our intuition.