It’s all about perspective

I’M NOT AFRAID to admit that I count myself among the 92% of Americans who think we are, as a nation, a pretty friendly lot. Given our remarkably heterogeneous society, I’ve always assumed we shared a knack for taking into account other people’s perspectives and points of view. After all, in this historically immigrant nation, newcomers have long relied on reading subtle cues from others to negotiate their new environment and sort out what is or is not acceptable behavior. And because the U.S. has no uniform set of social rules, we are constantly second-guessing ourselves and others as we puzzle out how best to approach the new neighbors from Pakistan or Poland or Poughkeepsie.

Is it OK to include your Jewish friends on your Christmas card mailing list? How about opening doors for women -- is that kosher or not? And should we order some vegetarian dishes for the office party for the new tech guys from India? In the same way that I assume that freeway-dependent, car-crazy Angelenos have more highly developed hand-eye coordination than other urbanites, I likewise figured the cultural free-for-all that is U.S. society has fostered a sophisticated sense of interpersonal communication.

Well, according to a new study out of the University of Chicago, boy, was I wrong.

In a recent experiment, Chinese students outperformed their American counterparts when asked to infer another person’s perspective.


Psychologists Boaz Keysar and Shali Wu gathered 40 students, half of them non-Asians who had grown up in the United States, the other half native Mandarin speakers who had recently emigrated from China. These volunteers played a game in which they had to follow the instructions of a person sitting across the table from them, a player referred to as the “director.”

Researchers then placed an upright grid of square compartments between the director and subject, each of which contained such odds and ends as sunglasses or toy bunnies. For the director, the view of some compartments was obscured; the subject, however, could see all the squares and could tell which ones the director couldn’t see.

The point of the game was simple: The director would tell the subject to move an object, and the subject would have to do it. The only complicating factors were the occasional cardboard inserts blocking the director’s view and the fact that the researchers sometimes placed two identical objects on the grid. In those cases, the subject would have to consider the director’s perspective to infer which object he was referring to.

So let’s say the grid contained two wood blocks -- one visible to both parties, the other invisible to the director. When the director asked the subject to move the wood block, nearly all the Chinese participants understood which block to move -- the one they both could see, obviously. The Chinese students were more visually tuned in to the director’s perspective.

The American students, on the other hand, had difficulties taking the director’s point of view into account. On average, they spent about twice as much time completing the request.

What really struck the researchers, however, was how often the Americans simply ignored the fact that the director could not see all the objects. Even though all the evidence was in front of them, two-thirds of the American students -- and kids who attend the University of Chicago are no dummies -- nonetheless felt it necessary to ask “Which block?” or “Do you mean the one on the left?”

The study’s authors hypothesized that the Chinese had an easier time understanding the director’s point of view because they were raised in a collectivist culture that nurtures a sense of interdependence. They contend that Americans’ culture of rugged individualism does little to develop the mental tools required to take into account another person’s point of view.

I’m no scientist, but that sounds to me like a bit of stretch. I wonder if the authors haven’t overlooked one key fact. The United States is a country continually being cobbled together by newcomers who bring their own frames of reference to the mix, a place where etiquette is unclear and social norms are forever changing. In school, we’re taught not to assume anything, because when we do we “make an ass out of u and me.” To avoid misunderstandings, we require our communication to be more explicit.


So perhaps it’s not that we ignore others’ perspectives but that we’d rather ask them directly. You know, so we can be friendly.