(credit: Three-shots)

Someone else’s shoes

Metaphorically wearing other people’s shoes can help us understand them better… but what if they don’t fit?

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them, and you have their shoes.” Undoubtedly excellent advice, and quite funny to boot, from humorist and comedian Jack Handey (in a 1991 episode of the TV show Saturday Night Live). But it is of course a riff on a much older piece of common wisdom, encouraging us to see things from someone else’s viewpoint, before we find fault. Are we any good at actually doing that?

Many of us have probably uttered the words “If I were you” more than a few times. There is a movie by that name, and a (humorous, again) podcast, and if you google the phrase you find more than 38 million hits. At first sight, this would suggest that there is plenty of putting on other people’s shoes going on. But when we say these words, what do we actually mean? Are we truly seeking to understand the other person’s perspective and situation?

We’re all better than average

Unfortunately we are prone to a few annoying cognitive quirks that may complicate matters a little. We tend to judge situations and behaviour by our own standards — this is called egocentric bias. Not only are we evidently more familiar with how the world looks through our own eyes, but we also believe that our capacity for evaluating it is superior to that of others. Our view is the best view and the only right view. This is a case of the Lake Wobegon effect (or illusory superiority), after the fictional town in the work of Garrison Keillor, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Egocentric bias makes us believe that others will find a TV sitcom as funny (or as awful) as we do, have the same opinion on exotic food, popular music or cars — and if they don’t, then they bloody well should. We are looking for validation of our beliefs, and the knowledge (even if only in our imagination) that others share what we think does that perfectly.

We are also prone to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. Philosopher Cristina Bicchieri describes it as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.” When we judge other people’s behaviour, we ascribe it to their character, rather than to external and situational factors. If someone you’ve emailed fails to respond, it’s because they’re an inconsiderate so-and-so, devoid of basic manners; but when we haven’t yet replied to someone else’s email, it’s because we are so incredibly busy. It’s just so much easier to reduce others’ actions and motives to who they are, rather than to consider all the circumstantial reasons that could be behind their behaviour.

To be successful, simply wear our shoes (photo: Alexas_Fotos)

That also leads us to believe that our successes are the result of our attitude, our hard work and our diligence in making decisions (and to overlook the role of good fortune). If others end up with problems, it’s because they don’t apply themselves in the same way, and what they should really do is take a leaf out of our book. As author Sandra Newman tweeted: “Rich people believe that, if they were poor people, they would be rich.”

So when we say “If I were you”, it’s not entirely surprising that we are probably more intent on impressing our own views and values on the other person, and giving them the benefit of our superior advice, than on trying to appreciate the full extent of their situation before we pass judgement.

Drop the shortcuts

Are we therefore doomed to misunderstand each other forever more? Not if we choose to think a bit differently when we observe others.

Rather than starting our reasoning from what we would do “if we were them”, we can take another angle. What if we thought instead, “in what circumstances would I act in the same way?” When a driver cuts you up, don’t just conclude he is an egotistical barbarian. Instead think about the kind of situation that would make you do the same — is your wife about to give birth and are you rushing to the hospital, or are you hurrying to catch the last plane? If your brother cannot make a long standing family get-together because he’s going to a colleague’s funeral, don’t feel vexed that he puts a workmate above his family. Instead, imagine the kind of person whose death would be so upsetting to you that you’d pull out of a rare family gathering to attend their funeral service.

When you judge someone’s decisions, be it your neighbour, a colleague, or a political or a business leader, try to look beyond ideology and stereotypes, and envisage in what context your decisions might not be all that different.

Mental shortcuts are an easy way to make sense of the world around us: our view is the correct view, and when others behave in a way we dislike, it is a sign of their true character. Imagining the complex reasons behind the behaviour of others is a bit harder — walking in other people’s shoes can be uncomfortable if they’re not a good fit.

But if dropping these mental shortcuts is the small price we can pay to understand our fellow human beings a bit better and respect their choices, isn’t it worth it?

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on January 5, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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