Imagining Being Someone Else

Heidi Maibom is professor of philosophy at University of Cincinnati. She works on empathy in all its forms, and on emotions, responsibility, and psychopathology.

Heidi Maibom is professor of philosophy at University of Cincinnati. She works on empathy in all its forms, and on emotions, responsibility, and psychopathology.

A Post by Heidi Maibom.

Recently, various objections have been raised against empathy in what seems to be a serious backlash against Panglossian attitudes to the construct, whether in its affective or cognitive form. We are told not only that empathy is not necessary for morality, but that it actually is bad for it (Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom). Moreover, in his provocatively titled article “Anti-Empathy” the late Peter Goldie insists that we can never fully succeed in taking another person’s perspective because we would have to represent her background beliefs, moods, attitudes, and other features of her personality. This would obviously be impossibly cognitively onerous. However, even if it were possible we would now explicitly represent what is normally implicitly represented, and that, he maintains, would make a substantial difference to these states’ functional role. Instead of influencing the person’s thoughts and actions in the background or, if you like, unconsciously, such psychological features would have to be factored in consciously in any simulation of another. In other words, even if we could amass knowledge of all the various beliefs a person might have, we would never be able to make them play the functional role in our cognitive economy that they would in the target’s. This obviously raises serious concerns about the entire enterprise. I think this way of thinking about how and why we imagine being in someone else’s situation is wrongheaded, and below I outline why. More details will be found—apologies for this shameless bit of self-promotion—in my upcoming book “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

Part of the difficulty arises from the somewhat persistent, but nonetheless mistaken, tendency to think of perspective taking as being of two forms: imagining ourselves in another’s situation or imagining being the other person in her situation. Either of these two options is problematic. It is fairly easy to see how wholesale projection goes astray. Even those that are close to us have different tastes, sensibilities, and predilections, all of which will be lost in an egocentric imaginative enterprise. It may get us accurate results for some segment of the population for some situations, but it is unlikely to be of general utility. Moreover, projecting ourselves into other people’s situations often defeats its own purpose. Only if their reaction were already not surprising would our projecting ourselves into the their situation give us the information we needed. But then, strictly speaking, we wouldn’t need the information in the first place. If on the other hand, we find their reaction puzzling, our projecting ourselves into their situation wouldn’t help at all, for we would presumably imagine reacting in non-surprising ways ourselves (and so differently from the targets).

It can be a bit harder to see why imagining being the other person, which Goldie calls ‘empathic imagining’, is problematic. I like to use examples of over-identification. In the movie “The Element of Crime”, the detective uses a process of identification to find a serial killer, and ultimately ends up taking over from that killer; he becomes the killer, if you like. However, as the identification deepens, so does any real understanding of the killer’s motives, perhaps because the traits, beliefs, etc. that would have helped such an understanding are no longer explicitly represented, but have become part of the detective’s psychology (i.e. are now implicit). In my mind, this captures the problem beautifully. The point of taking another person’s perspective is not transforming ourselves into them. It is to understand them better. The two processes do not work in tandem, though. One appears to exclude the other. Moreover, the delicate question arises of what understanding we would be talking about anyway. Are we trying to understand someone from an entirely different standpoint than our own? Is the point not to see how we can make sense of the other person on the basis of our own current capacities and understanding? We travel some way towards others to get a better sense of them, as the persons they are, but were we able to transform ourselves into them, they would no longer be comprehensible to us. Instead, we meet somewhere in the middle, where I can still make sense of you, but where I will also find patterns of reactivity that are different from my own. I am neither projecting myself wholesale into your situation, nor am I attempting to transform myself into you (even if for just a moment).

At this point, you might wonder why anyone would have thought imagining ourselves in others’ situations would have to be either imagining-being-the-other-in-her-situation or imagining-ourselves-in-the-other’s-situation. My diagnosis is this. It is the bastard child of philosophers’ predilection for making fine distinctions and psychologists’ urge to operationalize processes for experimental purposes. Now, you certainly can instruct people to do one or the other, and when you do, you will often find that it makes a difference what instructions are followed. But to think that this gives us valuable information about what people typically do when they imagine being in someone else’s situation is a mistake.

Are there additional reasons to believe my view over others? I think there is. I’ll give you one more. A problem that dogs views that maintain that perspective taking plays an important role in interpersonal relationships is that there is no correlation between relationship satisfaction and accuracy. Think of accuracy as measured by comparing someone’s self-ascriptions with another person’s ascriptions to them. There is, however, a relation between perceived tendency to take the other person’s perspective and empathize with her generally, and relationship satisfaction (close personal relationships and therapeutic relationships). Overall, surprisingly little research has been done on what is known as empathic accuracy, so we can still hope for better news. For now, however, accuracy does not seem to correlate particularly well with empathic tendencies NOR with the target feeling understood. This latter aspect is particularly interesting, if dispiriting. It seems tempting to conclude that people’s sense of being understood floats free of any real understanding, and may be tied more to attempts at understanding or to the partner’s otherwise empathetic attitude towards them. Another possibility is to rethink what we expect from interpersonal understanding through imagining the other. Perhaps understanding via imagining being in the other’s situation was never meant to give us accurate information about the other person’s mental states in the first place. Instead, it allows us to enter into a state that is similar to that of the target, but that is still related to our own psychological make-up and experience so that is sense-making to us. Another way of looking at it is to say that the state plays a similar role in our internal economy as it does in the target’s. Such an account needs more fleshing out, to be sure, but I think it is a promising proposal to explore further.