When we want to reduce animosity and increase empathy toward a group or individual, we may try perspective-taking, the act of trying to stand in their shoes and view the situation from their perspective. But what if there’s something even more powerful for the job?
A few years ago I led a conflict resolution training held at a Holocaust and human rights center. I told this story:
My father was born in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. as a little boy when his parents sought better economic opportunity in America. The family of four traveled steerage class in an Atlantic crossing that was so stormy and unpleasant the New York Times published a story about it. They arrived with $100 to their names.
When my father first set foot on soil in New York City, he saw a child his age eating a bag of candy. My father thought to himself, “So that’s what it’s like to be an American. You can afford your own bag of candy!”
He dropped out of high school after 10th grade to help support his family. And when the U.S. entered World War II a few years later, he joined the Army and served honorably in the European theatre.
I feel proud of my father and proud that he served on the right side of history.
Yet, had his family never left Germany, I have little doubt my father would have fought for the Germans. The military would have been a food ticket in an impoverished family. It might have been family tradition, his own father having been wounded in battle as a German infantryman in World War I. Even without being forced to enlist, my father probably would have fought for the German side because his life circumstances led him to do so.
I say this not to defend others who fought for Fascism and ethnic cleansing or imply, in a morally relativistic way, that there was rightness in those views. I say it to acknowledge that my father’s life would have made the decision clearer for him than I’d wish to be the case. I say it because life’s decisions are messy and complex in ways that right-or-wrong dualism downplays.
We pride ourselves on our convictions. We assume the values and beliefs we hold dearly came to us by way of thoughtful analysis and decision making.
Every little left turn or right turn led us to who we have become not because we made conscious choices and adopted deliberate beliefs at every crossroad, but because of our circumstances, our surroundings, and the people with whom our lives have intersected.
We may be tempted to imagine that someone whose values and beliefs we detest is the way they are because of their decisions, too. It’s easy to dislike or despise them. I’ve wrestled with some of that very animosity over the past 18 months myself.
Many of us were taught to practice perspective-taking to reduce animosity and increase empathy toward a person or a group we dislike strongly. From childhood, we have been invited to consider how Maria felt when we didn’t invite her to play, or how Sam must have felt when we broke their toy.
Perspective-taking does increase empathy and research supports this. I have asked myself perspective-taking questions more times than I can count over the past year. And I have found the experience wanting. I have somehow managed to feel both empathy and animosity at the same time.
My father’s story came back to mind as I read an interview with psychologist Adam Grant, who’s making the rounds to publicize his latest book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.
Grant offers a research-supported alternative to traditional perspective-taking. Instead of imagining what the other side feels, or trying to stand in their shoes, Grant suggests we practice counterfactual thinking.
In discussing the research that led him to propose counterfactual thinking as a more robust way to decrease animosity, Grant said, “I think when we encounter people who disagree with us on charged issues, it is worth thinking about no matter how passionately I feel about a given issue, I could imagine having grown up in a family or in a country, or in an era, where, because of my experiences and the people that I knew, I might believe different things. That allows me to be open to rethinking my animosity toward people who believe those things. It allows me to recognize that their beliefs have the capacity to change, just like mine could have.”