A Matter of Perspective

A new study offers powerful evidence on the importance of listening.
Researchers at Northwestern University, New York University and Stanford University noted that most messages can be interpreted in multiple ways, and effective communication requires taking the knowledge and perspectives of one’s audience into account.
In the study, “Power and Perspectives Not Taken’, researchers asked participants to draw an “E’ on their forehead. Those with a high sense of personal power tended to draw their E’s in a “self-oriented” direction, i.e., from their perspective. In fact, they were three times as likely to do so as the “low power’ study participants – who, without prompting, tended to draw that same “E’ on their forehead oriented so that others could read it.
“Self’ Awareness
What’s even more interesting is how easily participants were steered into a feeling of personal power, shifting their perspective. In the study, students were simply asked to “recall and write about a personal incident in which they had power over another individual or individuals.” This exercise was apparently enough to momentarily elevate their perception of themselves as powerful, and presto: They drew “self-oriented” Es on their foreheads.
The researchers also conducted a test by giving participants a message, and asking them to interpret how a friend of the speaker might perceive the message. The message on its face seemed sincere, but privileged background knowledge about the speaker’s intentions suggested a sarcastic interpretation.
The scenario ran like this; participants were given a scenario in which they and a colleague had gone to a fancy restaurant recommended by the colleague’s friend but had a particularly poor dining experience. The next day the colleague had sent an email to the friend stating only that: “About the restaurant, it was marvelous, just marvelous.’ Participants were asked to respond to the question, “How do you think the colleague’s friend will interpret the comment?’. There was no information in the email itself to suggest anything other than sincerity. However, if participants anchored on their privileged knowledge of the speaker’s intention then they would think that the friend would interpret the message as sarcastic in nature.
High-Powered Perspectives
High-power participants thought the message would be perceived as more sarcastic by the naïve recipient than did low-power participants – a finding that researchers said supported their prediction that power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to other’s perspectives.
In a follow-up experiment, participants read that they and a colleague had gone to a restaurant where the colleague’s friend always had poor dining experiences. They, however, really enjoyed the meal. The colleague sent the friend the same “marvelous, marvelous’ email, and participants predicted how the friend would interpret the comment using the same sarcastic-sincere scale from above. This time the “inside’ information implied sincerity, but the naïve listener would have inferred sarcasm.
Here again, high-power participants were significantly more anchored on their personal knowledge. Specifically, high power participants thought that the message recipient would interpret it as more sincere (in accordance with their own personal perspective) and less sarcastic than did low-power participants, who were apparently more sensitive to the fact that their friend always had a bad experience.
Power “Corrupts?’
Of course, the studies weren’t conducted on people with real power – just students with a primed sense of it. Still, based on the responses, the researchers concluded that, rather than exhibiting a conscious decision to ignore others’ perspectives, “we believe that power leads to a psychological state that makes perspective-taking less likely.’ In essence, the experiments suggest that “high-power individuals are less focused on the meaningful psychological experiences of those around them.’
The researchers opined that since powerful people by definition tend to have control over scarce resources, and are thus less dependent on other perspectives, they don’t tend to think about the perspective of others. Others are denied that “luxury’ due to the constraints of time, or the expectations of their position.
They also cautioned that this lack of perspective-taking may also sew the seeds of power’s demise. In essence, when disregard for the concerns, emotions, and individuality of others persists, “the powerful can start to inspire enmity, bitterness, and incipient rebellion. The inverse relationship between power and perspective-taking may allow the powerful to accomplish short-term goals but lead to the long-term loss of power.’
You can read the full report HERE