“Put yourself in their shoes,” people say when they want to remind us that perhaps the person we’re judging has shoes with way more piled-up crap on them than our own. It means, essentially, show some empathy: Stand where they stand and see the world from their point-of-view. Doing this, the theory goes, allows you to better understand their garbage takes by experiencing their uniquely bothersome fungal infections firsthand (metaphorically speaking, at least).
But according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the University of Chicago and Northeastern University, relying on your own assumption of how someone else is feeling is in no way an accurate method of determining what they’re actually feeling. “We incorrectly presume that taking someone else’s perspective will help us understand and improve interpersonal relationships,” the researchers say in a new study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, as reported by Science Daily.
In a series of 25 experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to adopt another person’s perspective and predict how they were feeling based on facial expressions and body postures. Participants also were asked to identify fake versus genuine smiles and spot when someone was lying or telling the truth. They found that although participants believed that taking someone else’s perspective would help them achieve more accurate interpersonal insight, the test results showed that their assumptions were generally inaccurate — perhaps worse, doing so also made participants feel more confident about their judgement.
“Subjectivity can never be known for sure,” says decision theorist Jeremy Sherman. “That’s why psychology gave up on this model. To understand how to change people, we have to know their motives and feelings.” The researchers agree with Sherman: “Ultimately, the researchers confirmed gaining perspective directly through conversation is the most accurate approach,” reported Science Daily.
Translation: If you want to know how someone is feeling or what they’re thinking, the single most effective method is simply to ask them.
The thing is, not only does the “walk a mile in their shoes” path to empathy not work, it’s also potentially detrimental to your own emotional health, per a 2017 study from the University of Buffalo. According to Michael Poulin, associate professor in the school’s psychology department and co-author of the study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, there are two routes to empathy: One approach, called imagine-other perspective-taking, observes and infers how someone is feeling; the other approach, imagine-self perspective-taking, is the “walking a mile” scenario whereby you put yourself in the other person’s situation.
“You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself,” Poulin told Futurity. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad.” Put another way, it’s perfectly possible to acknowledge someone else’s feelings in such a way that they don’t become a burden for yourself.
So again, take the other person’s shoes off: They don’t fit you, and they’re only going to give you blisters. Instead, just try asking them how they’re feeling — and more importantly, listen to what they tell you.