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Adam Galinsky, Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management

Professor Adam Galinsky

Walking in another's shoes

New study shows how taking another person’s perspective leads to smoother interracial interactions


4/6/2011 - Despite making legal and social strides toward racial equality in the last few decades, expressions of racial bias are still pervasive in contemporary society. A new study from Northwestern University looks at the most subtle indicators of racial tension and suggests that walking in another person’s shoes is one key to diffusing this friction.

This research shows how the act of perspective taking – the contemplation of another’s psychological experience – positively affects interactions between people of different races.

The study, “Perspective Taking Combats Automatic Expressions of Racial Bias,” specifically examined interactions between black and non-black individuals and found that these subtle forms of bias can be reduced or eliminated simply by having individuals take the perspective of a member of a different racial group before engaging in an interaction with that person. The benefits of perspective taking were comprehensive: perspective takers displayed fewer expressions of bias in their facial expressions, avoidance tendencies, and interpersonal behaviors in a subsequent interracial interaction.

“Though society has become more sensitive to obvious expressions of racial bias, many people show subtle biases without even being aware that their prejudices are leaking out when encountering someone of a different race,” said Adam D. Galinsky, study co-author and Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management. “Our research finds that taking on another person’s perspective can help decrease these automatic and subtle expressions of racial bias and foster more positive social relationships overall.”

Galen Bodenhausen, professor of marketing and Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing
Galen Bodenhausen, professor of marketing and Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing
The paper was also co-authored by Andrew Todd, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cologne; Galen Bodenhausen, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences and a professor of marketing at Kellogg; and Jennifer Richeson, a professor of social psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

In a series of five experiments, the authors examined the ways that consciously considering the perspective of members of another race affected one’s psychological propensities and actual behavior towards members of that race. One example used was writing a day in the life essay from the perspective of a young black male.

One experiment explicitly looked at how perspective taking reduces basic avoidance tendencies with people of a different race. Some participants were asked to adopt the perspective of a young black male, whereas others in a control group were not. Then, all participants had to set up two chairs for an interview with a research assistant, either named “Jake” or “Tyrone” depending on the condition.

“Participants who were in the perspective-taking condition and who expected to interact with Tyrone, whose name suggested he was black, placed the two chairs closer together than did those who were in the control group,” Todd said. “This experiment demonstrates that first putting oneself in another’s shoes, in this case those of a young black male, can lead to more approach behaviors when interacting with a person of another race.”

The final experiment most directly addressed the interpersonal consequences of perspective taking by having non-black participants interact face-to-face with a black interviewer. These videotaped interactions were coded. Participants in the perspective-taking condition engaged in more positive non-verbal behaviors – they displayed greater smiling, increased eye contact, less fidgeting, and an “approach” body posture (leaning in versus backing away from the person). Importantly, the black interviewer, who was blind to the experimental hypotheses and conditions, subjectively rated her interactions with perspective-takers more positively than baseline participants.

“Perspective taking is one strategy for creating more positive reactions and enriching relationships between races,” said Galinsky. “We believe this study could help lay the groundwork for building effective intergroup relations programs and workshops for the classroom and the workplace.”

This research will be published in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For more information or to arrange an interview with the authors of this study, contact Betsy Berger.