Perspective taking is a key building block of kindness. It is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes, and to understand that someone might think and feel differently than you do. In the new millennium, we might say it is the recognition of different points of view (POV).
Perspective taking therefore relies upon our capacity to shift our POV, to conceive of reality not as fixed and black and white, but as subjective. This mental flexibility is the bedrock not only of kindness, but of sympathy and empathy.
Although this cognitive achievement is shared by other species, and does not look the same in all people, many would agree that perspective taking is among the sine qua non of being a well-adjusted and socially-connected human being.
How Does Perspective Taking Develop? Theory of Mind
Starting in the 1980’s, developmental psychologists created some simple but clever techniques to study children’s ability to take another POV, also called theory of mind. Theory of mind is the capacity to attribute mental states – including beliefs, intentions, perspectives, desires, emotions, and knowledge – to oneself and to others, and to further understand that one’s mental states can be private and different from another’s. Calling it a theory of mind, asserts the philosophical truism that we can only intuit the existence of our own mind through introspection, and have no direct access to the mind of another. This theorizing also allows us to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—the behavior of ourselves and others. So theory of mind is quite a useful theory indeed.
In these first theory of mind experiments, children were told stories or shown puppet shows about other little children with names like Maxi, Sally, and Anne, and involving objects like candy and marbles. For example, in the “Maxi Task” developed by Wimmer & Perner (1983), researchers act out a scenario with two dolls, one a little boy called Maxi and the other a mother doll. Maxi has a piece of chocolate and puts it in a blue cupboard. Then, after Maxi leaves the scene, the mother doll moves the chocolate to the green cupboard. Maxi does not observe that the chocolate was moved. Finally, Maxi returns and the child is asked, “Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?”
Researchers consistently find that children younger than 4 are more likely to say that Maxi would look in the green cupboard – where the mother put the chocolate – despite the fact that Maxi could not have known this. In contrast, 4- and 5-year-olds are more likely to say Maxi would look in the blue cupboard.
The Maxi Task and similar tasks are called false belief tasks because they reveal whether or not a child comprehends that two people can have different beliefs about the same situation. In the case of the Maxi task, a child who has developed theory of mind understands that Maxi would have falsely believed that the chocolate was still in the blue cupboard, where he had originally put it, since he did not see his mother move the chocolate into the green cupboard.
Developmental Psychology has a rich history of theory and research on how humans develop theory of mind, and it’s considered “typical” or what we expect from every child and adult. When there are problems with this fundamental ability, we take notice. Indeed, a range of psychological disorders list differences or deficits in the ability to perspective take as a core symptom, such as autistic spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Digital Technology and Perspective Taking: To POV or not to POV
So, if perspective taking and theory of mind are necessary facets of being a healthy human being, then finding ways to cultivate perspective taking in our daily lives becomes a fundamental goal, and one that isn’t just about politeness or niceties.
Digital technology and social media are among the most important contexts in which we exercise our ability to share POVs. The term exercise is highly appropriate here because, like a muscle, perspective taking is something that can be strengthened with practice. But there is a deep tension between how digital technology both disrupts and cultivates our ability to share another person’s POV.
Technology is disruptive when it compromises our ability to engage with others as real human beings, with their own perspectives, and to whom we owe basic respect. The pervasive culture of online harassment, trolling, and cyber bullying shows us that something has broken down here. A recent white paper on online harassment reports that almost three-quarters (72%) of American internet users have witnessed online harassment or abuse and almost half (47%) of have personally experienced it. Men and women are equally likely to face harassment, but women, younger people, and those identifying as LGBTQ experience a greater variety and more serious forms of abuse. Self-censorship as a result of this harassment is growing more common, with more than a quarter of Americans (27%) saying they have decided not to post something online for fear of attracting harassment, and 40% of harassment victims say they experience increased isolation or disconnectedness due to the online harassment.
What is it about online culture that drives this trend towards the unkind? Part of it is anonymity: people will say and do things they normally wouldn’t when they believe they are anonymous. Part of it might also be that digital culture is embedded in the attention economy, which is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention for the economic benefit of its creators. If the services we use are to gather and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, hoping to hear the next best thing, to get a “like”, and to feel connected, soothed, and understood. Social media is deeply anchored in the interpersonal version of this carrot and stick dance; and trolls and bullies are likely to crash the dance.
The consolation prize for us users is that we are supposed to be part of a world that, as described in the Facebook mission statement, “give[s] people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” And in many ways we do live in a much more connected world in which so many POVs are discoverable, recognized and acknowledged. Given that, we should be in the golden age of perspective taking.
But our digerati have failed us, because the attention economy has also created echo chambers in which information, ideas, or beliefs from a single POV are amplified or reinforced because the algorithms that control the flow of information have become the fuel of the economic engine that drives billion-dollar empires. The Facebook echo chambers talked about so much during the 2016 US presidential election were perhaps the single most powerful method of spreading fake news, because we are much more likely to believe something that comes from our self-selected network of friends and information sources with radically similar POVs. This has led to Facebook and others making attempts to halt the flow of fake news, but thus far, these attempts are only baby steps.
Downloading Kindness into Digital Technology
So how do we “download” kindness into this problematic ecosystem of digital technology by using the power of perspective taking?
Perhaps there’s not an app for that. Last year, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Personal Democracy Forum on the politics of fear. Sherry Turkle also presented, speaking about ideas described in her book Reclaiming Conversation. She cited a research study that received media attention over its finding that millennials reported less empathy than previous generations. While the study had no evidence of what might have caused this decline, the authors proposed that the increased use of social media and digital communication might be the culprit. One of the authors went on to suggest that a solution to this problem was to build an “empathy app” – relying on the same sorts of technology that supposedly caused the empathy decline. Because many aspects of digital technology allow us to consistently and effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships,” Dr. Turkle called for reclaiming not only face-to-face communication, but the common sense realization that mediating our social lives through technology is not the only or best solution to the empathy gap. Instead, she argued, we are the empathy app, and our daily social interactions are all we need to foster empathy. Indeed, I might further argue that the killer empathy app is the one that fosters social interactions on and off screen, and that fosters echo chambers cultivating multiple POVs.
Yet, harnessing technology for the digitally-mediated promotion of perspective taking is not impossible. Technology sometimes affords us the ability to literally show people the world through another’s eyes. Rapid advances in virtual reality (VR) are making this more possible because the promise of VR is to immerse us in a full human experience by harnessing all of our senses. People in the VR world, like Chris Milk who founded the company Within, are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to create greater understanding and empathy. In a project with the UN, Chris Milk created a VR film “Clouds Over Sidra” to vividly portray the plight of refugees through the day-to-day life of a 12-year-old girl named Sidra who, along with more than 80,000 other refugees, lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. 120 diplomats and policy makers stood in line at the 2015 World Economic Forum to experience it. In instances like this, could VR really be the “ultimate empathy machine?” Visions of future dystopias, in which the artificial, virtual worlds of our own choice and design are so much better than reality, tend to dance through my head when I think about the future of VR and AR. Chris Milk and others believe that instead, these technologies can make us more human and fundamentally succeed in removing borders. Perhaps when perspective taking and kindness are at stake, the benefits of technology like VR could outweigh the risks.