Sympathy Can Heighten Conflict

Taking a walk in someone else's shoes can backfire--if you do it in the wrong way or at the wrong time


IN 2007 a Palestinian youth named Tareq attended an unusual summer camp. Organized by the foundation Seeds of Peace, the camp is designed to facilitate closeness between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, who spend a week together canoeing, hiking and—more important—discussing their experiences of the conflict in which their two nations are entrenched. Tareq's reactions were not what he expected, however. In this idyllic setting, hearing his Israeli counterparts bare their thoughts and feelings, he knew he should come to see them as people just like himself. Instead the more he thought of the Israeli teens' point of view, the less he sympathized with them.

Our intuitions—and a great deal of psychological theory—suggest that “perspective taking,” the proverbial walk in someone else's shoes, can cure many of our interpersonal ills. Thinking deeply about another person's experience should reduce prejudice, shrink the aisle separating political factions and even bring an end to violent conflict. The logic is that problems between groups often amount to a misunderstanding. As such, time spent together—a cup of coffee here, a beer summit there—will lead individuals on either side to understand that they are more similar than they imagined, dissolve their misconceptions and begin to erase their divisions.

This logic is usually valid. Decades of research demonstrate that perspective taking often increases people's sense of camaraderie and similarity to others, while fostering prosocial behaviors such as helping and cooperation. It can also encourage generosity, even toward members of groups such as opposing political parties that a person initially disdained. Yet this approach sometimes fails. In fact, a growing number of studies emphasize the ironic, harmful effects that perspective taking can have.

Group Conflicts

Organizations devoted to resolving conflicts often use perspective taking as an antidote to long-standing animosity between ethnic and political groups. Yet Tareq's experience suggests this strategy may be misguided. Two years after his Seeds of Peace summer Tareq sought out—and eventually worked with—neuroscientist Emile Bruneau of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the psychology of intergroup conflicts. According to Bruneau, numerous studies have shown that perspective taking works to improve the attitudes of dominant groups toward stigmatized ones—for example, that thinking about the mind of a homeless person makes us more amenable to helping him—but this method by no means has to translate to groups locking horns with one another.

In fact, Bruneau recently demonstrated that during a conflict, the effects of perspective taking might differ dramatically depending on who is walking in whose shoes. In work carried out across two continents and described in a forthcoming paper, Bruneau found that relatively dominant conflict groups (in his studies, Israelis and white Americans) feel more positively about their nondominant counterparts (Palestinians and Mexican immigrants, respectively) after taking their perspective but that swapping places mentally has no such beneficial effect for lower-status groups. In fact, listening to the point of view of white Americans actually worsened the attitudes of Mexican immigrants toward this group.

One possible reason for this failure is that less powerful individuals already engage in frequent perspective taking, so more of the same will not budge their attitudes. In a study published in 2011 psychologist Michael Kraus, now at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues found that because the well-being of individuals with lower social status is often subject to the changing whims of others, they tend to pay closer attention to others' minds than do more powerful individuals. Another possibility is that nondominant groups or individuals—students, say, or low-ranking employees—may feel as though their own perspective is too often ignored, making it difficult for them to listen to the dominant side's point of view. Indeed, Bruneau found that nondominant people's attitudes about disputes improved not after perspective taking but after “perspective giving”—that is, describing their own experiences to attentive members of higher-ranking groups. As Bruneau describes it, “nondominant groups express a strong desire to be heard or, in their words, to ‘speak truth to power.’”

This article was originally published with the title "The Curious Perils of Seeing the Other Side."

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