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Perspective Taking and Empathy: Does Having Similar Past Experience to Another Person Make It Easier to Take Their Perspective?

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This study tested the hypothesis that it is easier to take the perspective of another person when one has similar past experience. Volunteer participants (N = 154) were asked to take the perspective of a protagonist in one of four problematic interpersonal situations and then to rate the ease with which they felt able to perspective take and the extent of their personal past experience of similar situations. Similar past experience predicted ease of perspective taking, with the relationship influenced by reflection on past experience. Ease of perspective taking mediated the relationship between similar past experience and participant perceptions of their accuracy in understanding the other person, but ease was not associated with emotional arousal. The findings have potential therapeutic applications for attempts to increase empathy and understanding in people for whom perspective taking may be difficult.
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Archived at the Flinders Academic Commons:
http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/dspace/
‘This is the peer reviewed version of the following
article: Adam Gerace, Andrew Day, Sharon Casey and
Philip Mohr (2015). Perspective Taking and Empathy:
Does Having Similar Past Experience to Another Person
Make It Easier to Take Their Perspective?. Journal of
Relationships Research, 6, e10 doi:10.1017/jrr.2015.6.
which has been published in final form at
DOI:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/jrr.2015.6.
Copyright (2015) The Authors
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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Perspective taking and empathy: Does having similar past experience to another person make
it easier to take their perspective?
Adam Gerace
School of Nursing & Midwifery, Flinders University
School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia
Andrew Day
School of Psychology, Deakin University
Sharon Casey
School of Psychology, Deakin University
Philip Mohr
School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide
Address for correspondence:
Adam Gerace
School of Nursing & Midwifery
Flinders University of South Australia
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001
Email: adam.gerace@flinders.edu.au
Keywords: perspective taking, role taking, empathy, past experience, empathic concern,
personal distress, ease
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Abstract
This study tested the hypothesis that it is easier to take the perspective of another person
when one has similar past experience. Volunteer participants (N = 154) were asked to take
the perspective of a protagonist in one of four problematic interpersonal situations, and then
to rate the ease with which they felt able to perspective take and the extent of their personal
past experience of similar situations. Similar past experience predicted ease of perspective
taking, with the relationship influenced by reflection on past experience. Ease of perspective
taking mediated the relationship between similar past experience and participant perceptions
of their accuracy in understanding the other person, but ease was not associated with
emotional arousal. The findings have potential therapeutic applications for attempts to
increase empathy and understanding in people for whom perspective taking may be difficult.
Keywords: perspective taking, role taking, empathy, past experience, empathic concern,
personal distress, ease
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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Introduction
I paused, hoping he’d make a tiny connection between his own
government-funded education and the kids on the South Side, but I
didn’t see a dawning light of empathy in his face.
V. I. Warshawski, Fire Sale (Paretsky, 2005, p. 96)
It seems likely that past experience will influence both our ability and willingness to
empathise with others, and yet there have been few empirical investigations of this idea.
Researchers appear to have been more concerned with understanding personal similarity
(e.g., shared attitudes) than similarity of experience (see Davis, 1994). When past experience
has been specifically investigated either by experimental manipulation or by drawing on
participants own previous experience the focus of most studies has been on identifying the
outcomes of the empathy process (such as emotional arousal or the accuracy with which the
participant has understood another person). Perspective taking, which can be defined as “the
imaginative transposing of oneself into the thinking, feeling, and acting of another”
(Dymond, 1950, p. 343), is the main cognitive process thought to be involved here. However,
this process has received even less attention, despite Vorauer and Cameron’s (2002)
contention that it is arguably one of the most important challenges that individuals face in
their interactions with others” (p. 1344). The purpose of the present study was to address how
past experiences influence the perspective-taking process in a new situation: specifically, to
assess the extent to which similarity between an individual’s past experience and that of a
target individual’s present situation makes it subjectively easier to take that person’s
perspective.
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The Role of Similar Past Experience in Empathy
Early theoretical accounts of the relation between empathy and past experience were
influenced by conditioning principles, with perspective taking only indirectly addressed.
Humphrey (1922), for example, posited that notions of a conditioned reflex may explain the
potential for “fellow feeling” (p. 113) which he termed sympathy to be elicited during
another’s similar experience. In this account, the situation of the other need not be one that
the empathiser has directly experienced. Similarly, Allport (1924/1967) advocated a
conditioned emotional response explanation. His discussion, however, stressed the
importance of the level of similarity between one’s own experience and that of the other, with
the ability to “sympathize” (p. 236) declining with decreasing similarity. It was only later that
Hoffman (e.g., 1975, 1978a, 1978b, 2000) identified perspective taking as one way in which
an empathic response to another’s distress might be elicited. Hoffman (1978b) suggested that
imagining oneself in the other’s place had the power to evoke associations with real events
in one’s own past” (pp. 234-235).
Empirical studies investigating the relation between similar past experience and
empathy have largely focussed on examining empathic outcomes such as interpersonal
accuracy (i.e., an individual’s success in predicting another’s thoughts and feelings and
understanding their behaviour) and reactive emotional responses (i.e., experiencing
sympathy, compassion, and empathic concern for another person), rather than investigating
the perspective-taking experience itself. These studies provide only limited support for a link
between similar past experience and the ability to accurately predict another’s emotions and
cognitions (e.g., Gibbs & Woll, 1985; Hodges, 2005; cf. Kitano & Chan, 1978). However,
this may relate to the problems in measuring empathic accuracy, including the possibility that
a person may be accurate in inferring another’s thoughts or feelings through non-empathic
processes such as projecting their own feelings onto the other person (Cronbach, 1955; Davis
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& Kraus, 1997). There is also the possibility that the results of studies that have utilised child
samples (e.g., Gibbs & Woll, 1985; Kitano & Chan, 1978) may be confounded by
developmental changes in empathy and perspective taking at younger ages.
In contrast, a number of studies provide general support for a link between previous
similar experience and emotional empathic reactions (e.g., Barnett, 1984; Barnett, Tetreault,
Esper, & Bristow, 1986; Barnett, Tetreault, & Masbad, 1987; Hodges, Kiel, Kramer, Veach,
& Villanueva, 2010; Stotland & Dunn, 1963). Here, there seems to be a pronounced gender
difference, with females displaying greater empathic reaction (e.g. empathic concern,
sympathy, and compassion) when exposed to another’s similar experience than males (Batson
et al., 1996), although some of this research investigated specific situations (e.g., being a rape
survivor) and involved only female participants (e.g., Barnett et al., 1986; Barnett et al.,
1987). Furthermore, these studies did not measure whether, and to what extent, participants
took the perspective of the other person.
Research that has directly assessed perspective taking is relatively rare. Studies have
found that participants who identify as rape survivors (or were classified as rape survivors
using the Sexual Experiences Survey; Koss & Oros, 1982) score higher on measures of the
tendency to take the perspective of other rape survivors (Ching & Burke, 1999; Deitz et al.,
1982; Smith & Frieze, 2003). In the study by Smith and Frieze (2003) both trait perspective
taking (e.g., I find it easy to take the perspective of a rape victim”) and empathic emotion
(e.g., Hearing about someone who has been raped makes me feel that person’s upset”) were
measured. Other studies, however, such as Hatcher et al.’s (2005) investigation of therapist
perceptions of similarity between their own personal experiences and those of hypothetical
clients have not observed an association between past experience and empathic response
(measured in that study as degree of perspective taking and empathic concern demonstrated
in participant narratives). In qualitative investigations of other past experiences, participants
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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have reported that their strategies for taking the perspective of vignette characters involved
reflecting on similar past experiences and imagining how they would feel in the other’s
situation (Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003). Perceptions of similarity of experience range
from the same or highly similar experience to those similar at a fundamental or abstract level
(Håkansson & Montgomery, 2003). However, participants do report imaging themselves in
situations they have not experienced (Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2005), and researchers
have questioned whether drawing upon personal experiences reflects perspective taking
rather than familiarity with the other’s experience (Kerem et al., 2001).
Most of this tells us little about the actual process of perspective taking when one has
experienced a similar situation, or how this past experience might affect the specific
strategies that people use. In a recent qualitative study, Gerace, Day, Casey, and Mohr (2013)
asked participants to reflect on the strategies they used in attempting to take the perspective
of another person. Amongst the strategies discussed (e.g., imagining oneself in the other’s
position, considering common responses to certain types of situation), past experiences were
commonly used to understand the other person. However, participants needed to make a
connection between their own experience and the other person’s present situation for these to
influence the perspective-taking process. The extent to which this occurred was associated
with how subjectively easy the participant found the perspective-taking task. Thus a focus on
ease may be particularly useful to understand the role of past experience in the process of
perspective taking.
Similar Past Experience and Ease of Perspective Taking
The influential work of Jacoby and colleagues (e.g., Jacoby, 1983, 1991; Jacoby &
Dallas, 1981; Johnston, Dark, & Jacoby, 1985) on recognition memory and perceptual
recognition can help to understand how past experience and the notion of ease might be
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related. In the series of studies reported by Jacoby and Dallas (1981) participants were
presented with words in a study phase and a test phase. For recognition memory, the time
taken to judge correctly whether a word in the test phase had been previously presented was
recorded. For perceptual recognition, participants were assessed on their ability to distinguish
a word which flashed on the screen (with words in the test phase both new and previously
presented in the study phase). As expected, previous presentation of a word increased
performance on both tasks. Two processes were hypothesised to account for task
performance: elaboration, where the individual retrieves unique details about when the
stimulus was first encountered; and relative perceptual fluency, or how subjectively smooth
or fluent the task feels. The former process was suggested to be specific to recognition
memory, and the latter involved in both recognition memory and perceptual recognition tasks
(cf. Jacoby, 1983).
Perhaps most relevant to the present study, these results suggest that prior exposure to
a stimulus will influence the fluency with which it is later processed. These and other studies
show that even when processing fluency is experimentally manipulated (e.g., by providing
primes before presenting a test item), prior exposure to the original stimulus independently
affects perceptual task performance and recognition memory (see also Whittlesea, 1993;
Whittlesea, Jacoby, & Girard, 1990). Processing fluency has also been found to function as a
heuristic for other judgments such as assessing statement truth, and affective judgments of
attractiveness and liking (e.g. Reber & Schwarz, 1999; Reber, Winkielman, & Schwarz 1998;
Unkelbach, 2007). A distinct, but relevant, line of research into ease of retrieval (e.g. Briñol,
Petty, & Tormala, 2006; Schwarz, Bless, Strack, Klumpp, Rittenauer-Schatka, & Simons,
1991) further suggests that both metacognitive experience (ease/difficulty of retrieval of
relevant cognitive content) and actual content (what is brought to mind) are important to a
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range of judgements and decision-making processes (e.g., Rothman & Schwarz, 1998;
Schwarz, 1998, 2005; Schwarz et al., 1991).
The studies reviewed point to a potential difficulty, however, in conceptualising the
relation of past experience to empathy. Jacoby and Kelley (1987) outlined how memory
could be understood with reference to notions of object and tool (Polanyi, 1958). Thus,
memory for a previous experience can be of a conscious and reflective nature: that is, the
object of one’s perception and cognition, demonstrated in recognition memory research.
Alternatively, it can be of an unconscious nature but impact on particular perceptions and
processes as a tool used to accomplish a task; this is as demonstrated in perceptual
recognition research. Indeed, Preston and Hofelich (2012) recently proposed that common
past experiences between an empathiser and a target may or may not be consciously recalled
during an interaction but still exert an influence on empathy (cf. Eisenberg & Sulik, 2012).
However, there are several reasons to believe that past experiences of relevance to a
current situation can (at least often) be reflected upon. For example, participants in the studies
by Gerace et al. (2013) and Van Boven and Loewenstein (2003) either explicitly referred to
past experiences they used to take another’s perspective, or demonstrated the ability to reflect
upon their similar past experiences when asked. Hodges and Wegner (1997) have also
suggested that the empathy experience involves “such a generalized structural transformation
in thought and emotion that it must be conceptualized more broadly than many less sweeping
changes in mental content (p. 312), with the implication that empathy is a state of our
minds upon which we can reflect” (p. 313). As such, so long as the experience itself can be
recalled (either during or outside of the perspective-taking task), the assessment of both the
influence of past experience and reflection on that past experience on the process of
perspective taking can still occur.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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The role of past experiences in influencing subjective ease of taking another’s
perspective has not been investigated directly. However, in a series of studies by Chambers
and Davis (2012) an ease of self-simulation heuristic was proposed, where the ease with
which a person can imagine him or herself in another’s situation is used “for gauging their
empathic reactions to the target” (p. 154). These studies support the idea that ease predicts
empathic outcomes (sympathy and willingness to help)They did not, however, consider the
influence of similar past experiences on either ease of perspective taking or empathic
outcomes.
The Present Study
This study investigated the influence of similar past experience on the ease with
which an individual can perspective take. Specifically, it was predicted that participants who
had experienced a situation similar to that of another (target) individual in a new situation
would find it easier to take the perspective of the target. It was also predicted that ease would
be increased by the extent to which participants reflected upon their similar past experience.
Given the limited empirical research in this area, the influence of other perspective strategies
that have been identified in the literature (e.g. imaginatively switching places with the other
person) and trait empathic ability on ease were also investigated. Following Chambers and
Davis’ (2012) finding of a relation between ease and empathic reactions, it was predicted that
similar past experience would lead to both increased emotional reactions to the other
individual and perceptions of accuracy in one’s perspective-taking effort. The relations
between similar past experience and these outcomes were expected to be mediated by ease.
Method
Participants
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A sample of 154 undergraduate university psychology students (116 female, 36 male,
two unspecified) were recruited for the study. The mean age of participants was 25.76 years
(SD = 8.66; Range =18-55 years). Participants identified the following ethnicities (they could
report multiple): Australian (n = 118), European (n = 37), Asian (n = 24), and Other (n = 5).
Design and procedure
Participants first completed a dispositional measure of empathy, and were then
randomly presented with one of four vignettes developed for the study and an induction to
take the perspective of the vignette protagonist (the perspective-taking task). The
dispositional measure was presented first to minimise the possible influence of the
perspective-taking task on judgements of empathic propensity. The influence of the
dispositional measure on state perspective taking was considered of lesser concern, as
perspective taking was being primed via the induction.
The perspective-taking induction was designed through adaptation of previous
inductions (e.g., Batson et al., 1997; Batson et al., 2003; Davis et al., 2004; Stotland, 1969;
Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003). In this literature, participants are primed to take the
perspective of another person through either adopting an imagine-other (i.e. to focus as much
as possible on the other person) or an imagine-self (i.e. mentally switching places with the
person to imagine how you would feel in their place) approach. The imagine-other approach
was adopted here as this reflects more general definitions of perspective taking, rather than
focusing on the more specific strategy of imagining oneself in the other’s place (Gerace et al.,
2013). The induction is presented below:
Now that you have read the description, I would like you to spend some time
(perhaps two to three minutes) thinking about your friend’s situation. Try to
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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take your friend’s perspective, considering how they are feeling and what
they are thinking about what has occurred. Visualise as much as possible
their situation and what is happening to them. Attempt, as much as possible,
to take the perspective of your friend.
After reading the vignette and induction, participants completed a measure of ease of
perspective taking and two manipulation check items. In the last section of the questionnaire,
participants completed measures of empathic concern and personal distress, perspective-
taking strategies used, and a similarity of past experience item.
The study was approved by the University of South Australia Human Research Ethics
Committee.
Materials
Interpersonal Reactivity Index.
The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980) is a 28-item self-report
questionnaire that measures four components of trait empathy via four seven-item subscales:
Perspective-Taking (PT) measures individual propensity to take the perspectives of others in
various situations (e.g. I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how
things look from their perspective); Empathic Concern (EC) and Personal Distress (PD),
measure emotional empathic reactions, with the former measuring reactions such as
sympathy and concern (e.g., I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate
than me) and the latter more distress-type reactions in troublesome emotional situations
involving others (e.g., Being in a tense emotional situation scares me); and Fantasy (FS)
measures propensity to engage emotionally and cognitively with fictitious characters and
situations (e.g., After seeing a play or movie, I have felt as though I were one of the
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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characters). Respondents are asked to indicate how well items describe them on a Likert-type
response scale from 0 (Does not describe me well) to 4 (Describes me very well). Scores on
each subscale can range from 0 to 28, with a higher score indicating a greater disposition to
experience the particular component of empathy being measured. Davis (1980) reported α
reliability coefficients of .70 for each subscale. Internal consistency reliabilities (using
Cronbach’s α) in the present study were .80 (Perspective-Taking), .79 (Empathic Concern),
.84 (Personal Distress), and .86 (Fantasy).
The vignettes.
Four vignettes, each depicting a situation in which perspective taking may be
important, were designed for the study. In order to develop a range of scenarios, life-event
measures were examined for the types of events that they included (e.g., Social Readjustment
Rating Scale, Holmes & Rahe, 1967; Life Events Questionnaire, Norbeck, 1984; Life
Experiences Survey, Sarason, Johnson, & Siegel, 1978), as well as the situations used or
described in previous empathy studies (e.g., Barnett et al., 1987; Batson et al., 1996; Gerace
et al., 2013). Vignettes were constructed to minimise the inclusion of potential confounds,
such as sex, age or ethnicity of the vignette protagonist (i.e., these were not provided), or the
priming of particular attitudes or attributions (e.g., by not discussing particular aspects of the
nature of the sexual act in the third vignette).The specific situations described in the vignettes
involved a person (1) considering ending an intimate relationship; (2) experiencing work-
related difficulties; (3) having experienced coercion to engage in sexual intercourse; and (4)
having lost a parent. In each situation, participants were invited to take the role of a friend
listening to the individual recount their experiences. The vignettes are included in Appendix
I.
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Ease of Perspective Taking Measure.
The Ease of Perspective Taking Measure was specifically designed for the study,
using terms drawn from definitions of ease in dictionary and thesaurus listings; these
included easy, effort, effortless, hard, difficulty, accomplish and
un/demanding. The ease-of-retrieval research, which often made use of single items to
assess ease or difficulty (e.g., Echterhoff & Hirst, 2006; Schwarz et al., 1991; Tormala et al.,
2002), was also used to guide operationalization. Twelve items were constructed to assess the
overall ease of process (e.g., It was easy for me to take the perspective of my friend), as well
as the more specific task of generating content (thoughts and feelings; e.g., It was hard to
figure out what my friend would have been thinking and feeling). Table 1 presents the original
12 items. All items were completed on a 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly agree) Likert-
type response scale. The factor structure of the measure was assessed prior to use.
Manipulation checks.
Participants completed two items to assess effectiveness of the perspective-taking
induction: I attempted to take the perspective of my friend and I considered what the thoughts
and feelings of my friend were. Items were answered on a 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly
Agree) Likert-type response scale.
Perceived accuracy.
Perceived accuracy in taking the perspective of the vignette character was measured
by two items: I think that I was accurate in inferring what my friend would be thinking and
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
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feeling, and I am confident in what I thought my friend was thinking and feeling. Both were
completed using a 1 (Strongly disagree) to 5 (Strongly agree) Likert-type response scale.
Empathic concern and personal distress indexes.
Measures of state empathic emotional response, which have been used in some form
in the work of Batson (e.g., Batson et al., 1996; Batson et al., 1997; Coke et al., 1978), were
administered. The empathic concern index consists of six adjectives (sympathetic,
compassionate, softhearted, tender, warm, moved), measuring “an other-oriented emotional
response congruent with the perceived plight of the person in need; it taps feeling for the
other” (Batson et al., 1997, p. 752). The personal distress index consists of eight adjectives
(alarmed, grieved, troubled, distressed, upset, disturbed, worried, perturbed), measuring
“more direct feelings of discomfort evoked by witnessing the plight of the other” (p. 752).
Respondents are asked to rate the extent to which they experienced each emotional reaction
on a Likert-type response scale from 1 (Not at all) to 7 (Extremely). Scores can range from 6
to 42 (empathic concern) and from 8 to 56 (personal distress), with higher scores indicative of
higher levels of the emotional response. Scores are converted to a mean for each participant.
Internal consistency reliabilities (using Cronbach’s α) were .84 (empathic concern), and .90
(personal distress) for the present study.
Perspective-taking strategies.
Six items were designed to measure the strategies used by the participant in order to
take the perspective of the vignette character. Items were devised based on strategies
identified in previous research (Batson et al., 1997; Davis et al., 2004; Gerace et al., 2013).
The extent to which participants reflected on their similar past experience was measured with
the item: I thought about a time/times when I was in a similar situation to my friend. The
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
15
other strategies measured were: I tried as much as possible to get into their head” or “step
into their shoes”, seeing things through their eyes; I imagined what I would think and how I
would feel if I were in their situation; I considered what may have led up to my friend’s
current situation; I thought about a time when someone I knew/knew of had experienced a
similar situation; I considered some of the common or typical ways that people react in these
sorts of situations. All items were answered on a 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much) Likert-type
response scale.
Similarity of past experience.
Past experience was assessed with a single item question similar to that used by
Batson et al. (1996). The question asked participants, How similar is the situation of your
friend in the scenario to one which you have experienced?, with a 1 (Not at all) to 7
(Extremely similar) Likert-type response scale employed.
Results
Preliminary Data Screening
Data screening for univariate (z > 3.29) and multivariate outliers (via Mahalanobis
distance; p < .001) resulted in the removal of three univariate outliers; no multivariate
outliers were identified. Participants were assessed on the two manipulation check measures
and, based on an a priori decision, those scoring below 3 on the 5-point Likert-type response
scale for either item (n = 3) were removed. Four participants with substantial missing data
and the two participants who did not specify gender were also removed. All other missing
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
16
values were negligible; these were replaced with a series mean. The final sample for analysis
consisted of 142 participants (110 female, 32 male).
Manipulation checks revealed that the induction was successful. Participants
attempted to take the perspective of the other person (M = 4.56, SD = .55), and considered
their thoughts and feelings (M = 4.49, SD = .57). A preliminary 2 (sex) x 4 (vignette)
between-groups multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to investigate
differences by sex and vignette on the dependent variables: ease, similarity of past
experience, empathic concern and personal distress, perceived accuracy, and the two
manipulation check measures. There were significant multivariate effects for sex, Wilks’ =
.87, F(8, 127) = 2.47, p = .02,
2
partial
= .14, and vignette, Wilks’ = .57, F(24, 368.94) =
3.31, p < .001,
2
partial
= .17. The sex-by-vignette interaction was not significant, Wilks’ =
.86, F(24, 368.94) = .81, p = .72,
2
partial
= .05. Subsequent analyses therefore controlled for
sex and vignette, but not the interaction of the two variables.
Psychometric Properties of the Ease of Perspective Taking Measure
Prior to testing of the main hypotheses, the 12 ease items were submitted to
exploratory factor analysis. The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy (.92) and
Bartlett test of sphericity (750.70 p < .001) indicated the suitability of the data for factor
analysis. The anti-image correlation matrix revealed that all measures of sampling adequacy
were above 0.60 (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2012). Parallel analysis, using a Monte Carlo analysis
with 1000 replications, suggested the extraction of one factor. Following Principal Axis
Factoring, Ease of Perspective Taking Measure scores were calculated as the sum of the 9
items that loaded .60 on the factor (9 items: M = 37.42, SD = 5.48, Range = 20-45).
Cronbach’s α = .90. Table 1 presents the factor loadings of all items.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
17
[Table 1 about here]
Descriptive Statistics
Table 2 presents the means and standard deviations for the measures. Participants
reported finding the task of taking another’s perspective relatively easy (M = 37.42, SD =
5.48, Range = 20-45). Participants perceived a moderate degree of similarity between the
situation with which they were presented and their own previous experience (M = 4.48, SD =
2.07, Range = 1-7). For the six perspective-taking strategies, the highest mean scores were
for the items I imagined what I would think and how I would feel if I were in their situation
(M = 4.49, SD = .76) and I tried as much as possible to “get into their head” or “step into
their shoes”, seeing things through their eyes (M = 4.16, SD = .96). Participants indicated
that they utilized the strategy of past experience reflection (I thought about a time/times when
I was in a similar situation to my friend) to a lesser extent (M = 3.84, SD = 1.36). This
strategy was, not surprisingly, significantly correlated with participant judgements of having
experienced a similar situation to that of the vignette character, r = .65, p < .001 (two-tailed).
[Table 2 about here]
Predictors of Ease of Perspective Taking
Ease of perspective taking was used as the dependent variable in a standard multiple
regression analysis with similarity of past experience, reflection on past experience (one of
the six perspective-taking strategies measured), the interaction of these measures, and other
measured variables (i.e., sex, age, trait empathy, perspective-taking strategies) to test the
hypothesis that participants who had experienced a situation similar to that of a target
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
18
individual would find it easier to take the perspective of the target. The analysis explained
23.80% of the total variance in ease of perspective taking, F(17, 124) = 2.28, p = .01.
Examination of standardised coefficients revealed that the strongest significant
predictors were similarity of past experience (β = .26) and imagining the other’s perspective
(β = .24), and the interaction term (β = .20), while personal distress approached significance
(β = -.16, at p = .07). Table 3 presents the results of the multiple regression.
[Table 3 about here]
To determine the source of the interaction effect, the relation between the independent
(similar past experience) and dependent (ease) variables was considered at increments of one
standard deviation above and below the mean of the moderator (reflection on past
experience) (Aiken & West, 1991; Cohen & Cohen, 1983). Figure 1 shows that the effect
involves greater ease at high levels of reflection as past experience becomes more similar.
There is less variation where low past experience is considered, or when low reflection is
used. Two regression analyses were used to determine whether the (simple) slopes were
significantly different from zero (Aiken & West, 1991). Reflection calculated at one standard
deviation either above the mean (in one analysis) or below the mean (in the other analysis),
similar of past experience (centred), and the product of centred similarity of past experience
and reflection, were included in two standard multiple regressions. The regression
coefficients for the independent variable in the two analyses were then considered. This
confirmed that similarity of past experience was a significant predictor of ease at high levels
of reflection, β = .37, t = 2.68, p = .01, but not at low levels of reflection, β = -.02, t = -.17, p
= .87.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
19
Ease as a Mediator between Similar Past Experience and Empathic Outcomes
The prediction that ease would mediate the relation between similar past experience
and each of empathic concern, personal distress, and judgments made about perceived
accuracy was tested in a series of standard multiple regressions. To demonstrate mediation, a
number of relations need be present: that the predictor/independent variable affects the
criterion/dependent variable; that the predictor variable affects the mediator variable; and that
the mediator affects the criterion variable. The extent to which the relation between the
predictor and criterion variables is accounted for by the mediator is reflected in a reduction in
the relation between predictor and criterion when the effects of the mediator variable are
controlled (see Baron & Kenny, 1986; Judd & Kenny, 1981; Kenny, 2014; Kenny, Kashy, &
Bolger, 1998). Given the nature of the variables under consideration, partial rather than full
mediation was expected. To assess the significance of these indirect effects (the mediation),
95% bias-corrected bootstrap confidence intervals based on 5,000 bootstrap samples were
generated (using the SPSS INDRECT macro developed by Preacher & Hayes, 2008).
Confidence intervals that do not contain zero indicate a significant effect (Hayes, 2013).
Empathic concern and personal distress.
Contrary to expectations there was neither a significant direct effect between similar
past experience and empathic concern or personal distress, nor one that was mediated by
ease. The only significant relation was between past experience and ease (β = .22, t = 2.69, p
= .01).
Perceived accuracy.
Responses to the two items measuring perceived accuracy were highly correlated, r =
.75, p < .001 (two-tailed) and therefore summed to give a single measure. The mediating role
of ease in the relation between past experience and perceived accuracy (Figure 2) was
supported. The relation between past experience and perceived accuracy was significant (β =
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
20
.27, t = 3.36, p = .001), as was the relation between ease and perceived accuracy (β = .44, t =
5.91, p < .001). There was a reduction in the relation between past experience and perceived
accuracy when ease was included in regression analysis (β = .18, t = 2.34, p = .02), although
the effect was still significant, supporting partial mediation. A 95% bias-corrected bootstrap
confidence interval for the indirect effect based on 5,000 bootstrap samples was significant
(.02 to .14).
The path models for empathic concern, personal distress, and perceived accuracy
were also investigated with sex and vignette as covariates. In each case, controlling for sex
and vignette was found to have no effect on these results.
Discussion
The present findings provide support for the hypothesis that the greater the similarity
between one’s own past experiences and the situation of another person, the easier it is to
understand that person’s perspective a process that is further influenced by how much one
reflects upon those experiences. In addition, how easily one could take the perspective of
another was found to mediate the relation between having a similar past experience and the
perceived accuracy of one’s inferences about the thoughts and feelings of the target.
However, having a similar past experience was not found to influence one’s emotional
response toward this other person.
These findings build on qualitative studies of the relation between past experience and
perspective taking (e.g., Gerace et al., 2013; Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003), and also
extend this line of research by considering the influence of similar past experience on the
ease with which another’s perspective is taken. Past experience appears to be most useful
when it is of a higher degree of similarity to that of the other’s situation and when it is
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
21
actively reflected upon. Not surprisingly, when past experience is less similar, high or low
reflection on it has little effect on ease. This suggests that memories utilised to understand
another person’s situation may need to be made more explicit or actively recalled and drawn
upon in order to be maximally effective (Jacoby & Kelley, 1987, cf. Preston & Hofelich,
2012).
The importance of similar past experience and reflection support the assertions of
various researchers that the self is central to the perspective-taking effort. In one model,
perspective taking is proposed to involve the use of an anchoring and adjustment heuristic,
where individuals adjust from their own perspective to take account of differences between
themselves and others in knowledge, ability, and experiences (Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, &
Gilovich, 2004). While this model does not deal explicitly with past experience, reflecting on
one’s own experiences to assess whether these apply to the other person’s circumstances may
be required and form part of the “adjustment” process (Gerace et al., 2013). Indeed, findings
from cognitive neuroscience regarding the activation of unique neural networks in individuals
taking another’s perspective versus those focussing on their own (e.g., Ruby & Decety, 2004)
support conceptions that propose “true” perspective taking does not involve simple projection
of one’s own experiences to another person.
It is important to consider the other perspective-taking strategies measured. The only
other significant predictor of ease was the strategy of imagining the other’s perspective. This
finding may reflect adherence to task instructions, given similarities between the wording of
this item and that used in the perspective-taking induction. The lack of effect of the other
strategies may reflect the use of vignettes rather than actual scenarios, or the nature of the
strategies measured. Perhaps some strategies (e.g., reflecting on another person’s similar past
experience; considering antecedents to the situation) only allow indirect access to the
thoughts and emotions involved and, therefore, may not make perspective taking easier. It is
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
22
noteworthy that the strategy of considering common or typical reactions failed to predict
ease, since it is plausible that considering stereotypic responses would make the task easier,
particularly when somewhat limited information is available (see Ames, 2004; Cronbach,
1955). However, because perspective taking requires, at its core, a “taking-on of the
individual’s situation as much as possible, a focus on the typical may be inefficacious,
particularly for participants who are high in dispositional ability or who undertake the task
very seriously (Karniol & Shomroni, 1999).
Participants reported that they were able to imagine themselves in the other’s
situation, but this strategy did not predict how easy they found the task. It is here that the
edge of past experience may become apparent. While imagining oneself in another’s situation
is a common strategy used to understand another person and can be undertaken by anyone
(Davis et al., 2004), similar past experiences to aid perspective taking are only available for
those with an applicable situation to draw upon. Thus, although reflection on past experiences
may be effortful as the individual needs to examine and “adjust” from their own perspective
(Epley, Morewedge, & Keysar, 2004), it has been posited that physiological similarities
between persons (e.g., nervous system) and experiences common to individuals (e.g., as a
result of socialisation) may mean that an empathiser “discovers that his feelings resemble the
feelings experienced independently by others in similar situations” (Hoffman, 1975, p. 616).
Indeed, that formulating thoughts and feelings of another came about more easily as a result
of reflecting on one’s own thoughts and feelings in similar situations fits with earlier
conceptions such as that of Hebb (1949) where “any two cells or systems of cells that are
repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become “associated,” so that activity in one
facilitates activity in the other” (p. 70).
Dispositional measures of empathy failed to predict ease of perspective taking,
although participants with higher levels of personal distress reported that taking the
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
23
perspective of the vignette character was more difficult (p = .07). This supports previous
research which suggests that a more self-oriented disposition is at odds with perspective
taking (e.g., Mohr, Howells, Gerace, Day, & Wharton, 2007). However, there was not an
association between similar past experience and state-based empathic emotion. Although the
use of short vignettes may have meant that participants in this study did not engage to the
same extent as those of previous studies using extended vignettes (e.g., Batson et al., 1996;
Hodges et al., 2010), an examination of mean scores on the empathic concern and personal
distress measures indicated that participants reported moderate to high emotional engagement
with the scenarios. In many of the studies that have found an effect of similar past experience
on empathic outcomes, the researcher either classified the participant as having had a similar
experience (Barnett et al., 1987; Batson et al., 1996) or chose participants on the basis of an
objective similar experience such as motherhood (Hodges et al., 2010). For participants in the
present study, who determined their own similarity, there may be more proximally-related
variables to consider such as the degree of connection made. Researchers have also
questioned whether differences observed between groups (i.e., those with and without similar
past experience) reflect increased empathic responses from participants with similar past
experience, or whether those participants without a relevant experience attempt to distance
themselves from victims of harm to reduce perceptions of threat to oneself (Barnett et al.,
1987; Lerner, 1980; Mason, Riger, & Foley, 2004; Shaver, 1970; Zaki, 2014). In regard to the
lack of relation between ease and empathic emotion, it may be that ease is not as powerful a
marker of one’s empathic emotion when the person is focusing on taking the other’s
perspective, rather than being distracted by another task (Chambers & Davis, 2012).
Support was found for the partial mediating role of ease on perceptions of empathic
accuracy. The use of heuristic-based processing could help explain this finding, with ease
based on past experience becoming a marker for assessing one’s accuracy in taking the
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
24
perspective of another person (see Schwarz et al., 1991; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, 1974
also Chambers & Davis, 2012 regarding empathic emotion). The partial mediating role may
reflect that, in real-life situations, another marker of perspective-taking accuracy or
confidence would be the reactions and feedback of the other person. While not measured in
the present study, the relation between perceived and actual accuracy of empathic perceptions
is likely to be complex. Participants could fail to adequately weight their experience to
consider how characteristic or useful it is to understand the situation the person is in (see
Griffin & Tversky, 1992). Hodges et al. (2010) found that those participants who told a target
about their similar experiences were considered to be more understanding by targets,
although they were not more accurate in correctly perceiving target-reported thoughts.
The present study has several limitations. Vignettes cannot reflect the complex nature
of real-world perspective taking. It may be that some perspective-taking strategies did not
emerge as significant predictors of ease due to the use of vignettes. However, while a vignette
may not have revealed the full range of use of perspective-taking strategies and their relative
importance to ease, previous studies have supported the use of these strategies (e.g., Gerace et
al., 2013; Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003). It is predicted, therefore, that similarity would
exist between the use of these strategies in the present study and those in more naturalistic
settings (see Gordon, 1986/1995 for a somewhat similar notion regarding the use of “offline”
systems). The use of fictitious vignettes also meant that self-reported perceived ease,
empathic emotion and accuracy were assessed and not objective benchmarks (e.g.,
manipulating the unique nature of situations to function as a measure of ease; target-
perceived accuracy). The study did use participants’ perceptions of similarity, reflecting a
more ecologically valid approach to the use of past experiences than random allocation to an
experience in the laboratory that the participant had little time to reflect upon.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
25
In order to maintain consistency with previous research, the vignettes were designed
to focus on more problematic or negatively-toned events. It is likely that positively- and
negatively-toned situations (and, indeed, more neutral experiences) will result in qualitatively
different responses of individuals such as empathic emotion (Krebs, 1975). Indeed, in one
study a positive-mood induction influenced participants’ ability to set aside their own
perspective, with negative-mood and no induction conditions less likely to impede
perspective taking in this way (Converse, Lin, Keysar, & Epley, 2008).
Finally, the main and mediational analyses were based on cross-sectional data, and it
is important to examine these hypothesised associations over time in a longitudinal design.
The results are also based on the responses of psychology undergraduate students, with the
need for replication of the study with other groups.
Implications
The results may be of particular interest to psychologists and other health
professionals who work with individuals to increase their perspective taking and
understanding of others, including clients who experience relationship conflict, interpersonal
difficulties, or those who are aggressive and violent (e.g., Mohr et al., 2007; Perrone-
McGovern et al., 2014). They suggest that an important component of any intervention may
be to encourage clients to draw on their previous experiences, teaching them how to apply
their own perspectives to those of others (as well as when to discriminate their experience
from that of others). Methods that are designed to facilitate the development of perspective-
taking skills, such as chair-work (a psychotherapeutic tool where the individual engages in a
dialogue between different aspects of the self or between the self and through taking the
other’s perspective – another person; see Day, Howells, Mohr, Schall, & Gerace, 2008;
Greenberg, Elliott, & Lietaer, 2003), may benefit from the inclusion of this component.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
26
Therapists might also reflect on how their own past experiences influence attempts to take the
perspectives of clients. However, the lack of significant findings in Hatcher et al.’s (2005)
study of therapist empathy and similar past experience suggests that the effects of the use of
past experience may be influenced by both other personal characteristics (e.g., degree of trait
empathy) and professional requirements for distance and lack of self-disclosure (see
Peternelj-Taylor & Yonge, 2003; Rogers, 1957).
Conclusions and Future Research
The present study provides support for the view that similar past experiences are
important to the perceived ability of an individual to take another person’s perspective.
Perspective taking has been identified as an effortful task (Epley et al., 2004), but when past
experiences are similar and can be readily reflected upon, the perspective-taking process is an
easier one. There are a number of areas for future research. First, since similar past
experience leads to perceptions of accuracy (both by the empathiser and target), but not
necessarily objective accuracy, future work could examine in what ways individuals are
“better” or “worse” empathisers because of past experience. It may be, for example, that
increased judgements of similarity and accuracy come from individuals reflecting on their
past experiences in a way that moves beyond rumination and increases the assimilation and
abstraction of these experiences (e.g., Stiles, 2001). Alternatively, an individual may have
reflected and assimilated their experiences to an extent where it is difficult for them to put
themselves into the perspective of someone at a different stage of working through a
problem. Indeed, assumed but not actual similarity could lead to problems in an interaction
(Dymond, 1954). Other parts of the empathic experience, such as emotional reactions toward
the person, could then be compromised. A related question is the extent to which reflection
on past experience can be increased. It may be that individual difference variables, such as
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
27
the tendency to self-reflect (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975), need to be considered. Such
future work should be undertaken using not only self-report, but other cognitive tasks and,
indeed, neuroscientific approaches.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
28
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Rosalind Dymond Cartwright for useful
comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
29
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Appendix I: Vignettes
Vignette 1: Over drinks, a friend confides to you that they are thinking about
breaking up with their partner. They suspect that their partner has been
cheating on them with another person. Your friend also tells you that they
have been fighting on and off with their partner for some time, although the
fights have not always been ‘serious’ or about big things.
Vignette 2: Over drinks, a friend discusses with you an experience they had
at work that day, where a customer became very angry when an item was not
available. The customer would not leave the store without the item and it
took quite a lot of time for your friend to be able to resolve the problem. Your
friend’s boss also suggested to them that taking this amount of time to solve
the problem resulted in other work not being completed and was not
appropriate.
Vignette 3: Over drinks, a friend discusses with you how they went out on a
date the previous night. Your friend tells you that the individual they were on
a date with came back to their place, and initiated sexual contact. While your
friend tried to avoid the contact by deflecting the advances of their date, the
date persisted and continued to act sexually towards your friend both in what
they were saying and how they were acting (e.g., touching). Your friend tells
you that they did engage in sexual intercourse with the date.
Vignette 4: You go out for a drink with a friend whose father has recently
passed away. They discuss with you the last couple of months since he has
passed away, the arrangements that had to be made regarding the funeral
and other matters, how their mother and siblings have been reacting, as well
as their interactions with their mother and siblings.
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
40
Table 1
Item loadings for a forced single-factor model using Principal Axis Factoring
Item
Factor
It was a challenge to take the perspective of my friend
-.81
It was easy for me to take the perspective of my friend
.78
Without much effort, I could generate ideas about some of the things that my friend would be
thinking and feeling
.74
Taking the perspective of my friend didn’t pose a problem
.72
It was very apparent to me what my friend would have been thinking and feeling
.71
It was hard to figure out what my friend would have been thinking and feeling
-.71
It didn’t take long to bring to mind what my friend would have been thinking and feeling
.66
It was an effort to take the perspective of my friend
-.62
I had to try a great deal to bring to mind some of the thoughts and feelings of my friend
-.60
I was at a loss to come up with some concrete thoughts and feelings of my friend
-.56
I had to think a lot to accomplish this task
-.50
I found considering my friend’s thoughts and feelings rather demanding
-.48
Note: Items loading < ± .60 were not included in the final measure
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
41
Table 2
Means and standard deviations of the State empathy measures (n = 142)
Measure
M (SD)
Dispositional empathy
IRI perspective taking
19.25 (4.26)
IRI empathic concern
20.50 (4.03)
IRI fantasy
16.27 (5.88)
IRI personal distress
11.57 (5.68)
Ease
Ease
37.42 (5.48)
Outcomes
Empathic concern (Batson)
4.87 (1.03)
Personal distress (Batson)
3.78 (1.34)
Perceptions of accuracy
3.89 (.83)
Perceptions of confidence
3.92 (.74)
Strategies
Imagining other’s perspective
4.16 (.96)
Imagining self
4.49 (.76)
Past experience reflection
3.84 (1.36)
Considering antecedents
3.27 (1.30)
Past experience of other(s) reflection
3.51 (1.38)
Considering common reactions
3.80 (.95)
Past experience
Similarity of past experience
4.48 (2.07)
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
43
Figure captions
Figure 1. The interaction between similarity of past experience and ease, at high and low
levels of past experience reflection.
Figure 2. Standardized regression coefficients (β) for the mediational model of past
experience, ease, and perceived accuracy.
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
44
Figure 1. The interaction between similarity of past experience and ease, at high and low
levels of past experience reflection.
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
40
45
Low similarity of past
experience
High similarity of past
experience
Ease of perspective taking
Low past
experience
reflection
High past
experience
reflection
RUNNING HEAD: SIMILAR PAST EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE TAKING
45
Figure 2. Standardized regression coefficients ) for the mediational model of past experience, ease, and
perceived accuracy.
Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001
.22*
Past experience
Ease
Perceived Accuracy
.44***
.27**(.18*)
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Chapter
A mediator explains, at least in part, a causal relationship between two variables. The total relationship between the two variables is due to a indirect effect, that part explained by the mediator, and due to an direct effect, that part not explained be the mediator. Strong assumptions must be made to estimate and test mediation. The inclusion of multiple variables complicates mediational analysis. Mediational analysis while seemingly simple is actually quite complex.