Mental flexibility is especially valuable for helping us to step into other people’s shoes and see the world as they do. Such perspective taking skill is critical for predicting other people’s moves, which is vital in both competitive and non-competitive situations.
Unfortunately, even though perspective taking skill is critical, our natural inclination is to forgo perspective taking even in situations when we obviously should consider other people’s perspective.
Perspective Taking as a Poorly Acquired Skill
For most of us, perspective taking doesn’t come naturally. We are not born with these skills; instead, we acquire them in childhood but they usually remain mediocre throughout our life. An eminent Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget argued that a distinctive feature of childhood is inability to see other people’s perspective. Small children, especially before the age of four, don’t understand that other people may have different beliefs than they do. For instance, in one study, 3-year-old children were shown a familiar box of candy but when they opened it they were surprised to find pencils placed there; when they were asked what their friends would expect to find in that box, they all said pencils. These children have not yet learned that other people may have different knowledge or perspectives. 4-year-olds, however, know that their friend will be tricked just as they had been.
With age, we get better at seeing others’ perspective, but this skill remains mediocre. Even as adults, we normally don’t even try to discover how other people think and feel, we merely assume that as long as they are normal people, they must be thinking and feeling the same as we do.
Perspective Taking in Prisoner’s Dilemma
We can see how people are inclined to forgo perspective taking, even when they clearly shouldn’t, by looking at how people play a strategic interaction game known as prisoner’s dilemma. Prisoner’s dilemma is a classic game developed within the self-congratulatory discipline known as game theory. Many real world problems, such as climate change or arms race, have been modeled on prisoner’s dilemma.
What is Prisoner’s Dilemma?
In the standard prisoner’s dilemma, you and your partner in crime have been just caught. Together you have committed various crimes, such as bank robberies. You agreed with your partner in advance that if you are ever caught you‘d both remain silent.
The investigators have placed you in separate rooms. District Attorney’s office lacks strong evidence to convict you both for the armed robberies but they have enough evidence to convict you both for lesser crimes, such as illegal possession of firearms. So the district attorney makes you an offer and she tells you that your partner will get the same offer:
- If you talk and your partner remains silent, you get 2 years in prison and your partner gets 15 years;
- If he talks and you remain silent, he gets 2 years and you get 15 years;
- If you both remain silent, each of you gets 4 years for illegal possession of firearms;
- If you both talk, you both get 15 years each.
It is in your best self-interest to defect: to talk while your partner remains silent. Conversely, it is also in your partner’s self-interest to defect. Yet, if you both talk, you’re both worse off. Collectively, but not individually, it is best if you both cooperate by remaining silent just as you had agreed earlier.
There is no perfect solution to prisoner’s dilemma. However, the obvious aspect of the prisoner’s dilemma is that you should consider your partner’s perspective before you make your own choice.
Prisoner’s Dilemma & Perspective-taking
If people consider their partner’s perspective by default, we would expect that telling them to do so would not change their decision. Yet, experimental evidence shows otherwise.
In a study by Eugene Caruso, Nicholas Epley, and Max Bazerman, some subjects were explicitly told to consider their partner’s perspective while subjects in the control group were merely asked to make their choice.
- 60% of subjects chose to cooperate with their partner when they were not urged to consider their partner’s perspective;
- Less than half—only 27.5%—chose to cooperate when they were urged to consider their partner’s perspective.
This shows that our inclination is to forego perspective taking even when we obviously need to consider others’ perspective.
There are different techniques for improving perspective taking, but the most important thing is to remind ourselves in the first place that we need to consider others’ perspective and that our default tendency is to forgo it.
 Josef Perner, Susan R. Leekam, and Heinz Wimmer, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 5, 125-137 (1987); Alison Gopnik and Janet W. Astington, Children’s Understanding of Representational Change and Its Relation to the Understanding of False Belief and the Appearance-reality Distinction, Child Development 59, 26-37 (1988).
 See John H. Flavell, Cognitive Development: Children’s Knowledge About the Mind, Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 21–45 (1999).
 There may be some superior strategies for iterated games, i.e. when the same two people play the game successively.
- William H. Press and Freeman J. Dyson, Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 109 (26), 10409-10413 (2012), available at <http://www.pnas.org/content/109/26/10409.full>
- Alexander J. Stewart and Joshua B. Plotkin, Extortion and Cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 109 (26), 10134–10135 (2012), at <http://www.pnas.org/content/109/26/10134.full>;
- Conversation on Iterated Prisonner’s Dilemma at Edge.org <http://edge.org/conversation/on-iterated-prisoner-dilemma>
 Eugene M. Caruso, Nicholas Epley, and Max H. Bazerman, Reactive Egoism and Unwarranted Distrust (Unpublished manuscript, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2007).