Kris English, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Audiology
The University of Akron
In a recent conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, this quote from W.E.B. Dubois (1903) regarding the challenges of “living while Black” was cited: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness” (p. 13).
The conversation struggled with this concept: clearly more than self-consciousness, or scanning for threat or danger, or sharp awareness of relentless judgment… Is it possible to understand “double consciousness” if one hasn’t lived it? Eventually it was asked, “So the task for someone like me [a White person] would be: don’t think ‘How would I feel in that situation?’ but instead ‘How would I feel if I were a Black person in that situation?’”—in other words, the classic concept of “putting oneself in another person’s shoes,” familiar to every person-centered individual.
Unlocking Assumptions re: “Others’ Shoes”
Recent studies indicate this genuinely respectful discussion was naïvely based on a faulty assumption: that we can accurately imagine another person’s feelings based on our own experiences. For instance, Eyal et al. (2018) recently conducted an exhaustive study about perspective-taking accuracy and did not find evidence supporting this assumption. They recruited more than 2800 volunteers to participate in one of 25 experiments. The first 24 experiments measured participants’ accuracy about taking another person’s perspective (strangers, acquaintances, friends, spouses) by predicting how those persons were feeling, measured by a range of assessments. Results indicated that, even though participants felt confident about their judgements, their predictions of others’ perspectives were generally inaccurate.
The 25th experiment explored another approach: instead of predicting someone’s agreement or disagreement to a series of opinion statements, participants were given the opportunity to first ask their assigned partners about the opinion statements, and then predict how the partner would respond on a numerical scale about the statements. The researchers found that getting a person’s perspective first (asking directly and listening actively, a bottom-up approach) significantly increased accuracy compared to the top-down approach of “putting oneself in the other’s shoes” without inquiry. Their conclusion: “Understanding the mind of another is therefore enabled by getting perspective, not simply taking perspective” (p. 547).
Habits are hard to break, and this one is no exception, especially since it means minimizing our own experiences as we open up to another’s. Regardless, Wilkerson (2020) exhorts us to recognize the limitations of “role-playing” empathy and also go deeper:
“Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in.
Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”
Other People’s Shoes Don’t Fit Anyway
The consideration here has focused on cross-racial understanding, but needless to say applies to all human connections. Overall, if we want to understand another person’s perspective, it doesn’t help much to consider how we would feel about a situation. Since “putting ourselves in another’s shoes” is ineffective as a learning/understanding strategy, the metaphor needs to be abandoned.
Instead, “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… If you want to know how someone is feeling or what they’re thinking, the single most effective method is simply to ask them” (Fiouzi, 2018).
Dubois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of Black folk: The unabridged classic. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Co.
Eyal T, Steffel M, Epley N. (2018). Perspective mistaking: Accurately understanding the mind of another requires getting perspective, not taking perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(4), 547-571. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000115
Wilkerson I. (2020). Caste: The origins of our discontents. New York: Random House.