Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose Across the Lifespan

The Way I See It: Emotions That Exacerbate Egocentrism

By Brittany Christian


As humans, not only are we able to contemplate how the world looks and feels from someone else’s vantage point, but doing so is essential in order to maintain the relationships that imbue our lives with purpose and meaning. If we could not consider circumstances outside of our current veridical experience, we would be perpetually perplexed; potentially enraged by our roommate’s forgetfulness or our partner’s frugality.  It is being able to mentally recall the frantic sleepless nights, or the excruciatingly large student loan payments that help us to truly empathize with another in particularly trying times or make allowances for behaviors we initially may not appreciate. But, of course, there are times when we forget or seem unable to walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes. One key determinant of these perspective taking pitfalls may not be the incomprehensible notions of our friends and family or even an untimely wave of apathy, but rather the anxiety that has taken root in our own lives.

Image ©: anton petukov 2012

Andrew Todd from the University of Iowa and colleagues from across the globe, recently published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General that investigated how particular emotions influence our perspective taking abilities. In a few of the studies participants were asked to partake in an autobiographical writing task where they recounted stories from their own lives. Participants either recalled a time when they felt particularly anxious or particularly angry.  Following this emotion induction, participants were asked to perform a perspective taking task. Whether describing the physical location of an object (e.g., either my left or your right), or trying to predict whether the recipient of an email would intuit the senders well-veiled sarcasm, participants who had been made to feel anxious were more egocentric (e.g., struggled to take other’s perspectives) than those who had previously been asked to recall a time when they felt angry.  Further studies identified that this decrease in perspective taking was unique to emotions of uncertainty (e.g., surprise and anxiety). Interestingly, this research suggests that it isn’t simply negative emotions that interfere with our ability to understand another person’s point of view, but rather the emotions that stem from not knowing what lies ahead.

Given the deep sense of purpose and meaning derived from relationships where we feel that we are truly known and understood, it is important to recognize that miscommunications and frustrations from a lack of perspective taking are particularly likely to arise in transitions that are saturated with unknowns. So next time you find yourself at a conversational impasse, completely bewildered by the mental chasm between you and a close other, stop to consider whether or not one (or both) of you is particularly anxious about an upcoming event. If so, try to take some advice from future research covered at New Paths to Purpose, make sure you are getting enough sleep to manage your anxiety at work and don’t forget that in particularly turbulent times you are unlikely to be seeing another person’s point of view as clearly as you usually do. 


Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose Across the Lifespan

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