A simple trick for seeing the world through fresh eyes

Kids looking at an aquarium
Photo: Aleksandar Nakic for iStock by Getty Images

The commute from downtown San Francisco, where Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher lives, to his office at Haas is roughly 12 miles. Not ideal, he knows, but when he made the move he tried to look on the bright side. “I figured I’d get to drive across the Bay Bridge every morning, see the scenery, and maybe this would add to my quality of life,” he says. “Unfortunately, I appreciated what I saw for about three days and then started growing blind to it.”

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as habituation. Novelty wears off; what is fresh grows stale; beauty no longer captivates. As he personally experienced this universal human tendency many days of the week, Critcher began to wonder if there might be a way to slow the process down. How can we stir up our waning sense of wonder? With Minah Jung and Fausto Gonzalez from New York University, Critcher found that a relatively small intervention can, in fact, go a long way toward this end. (Their results were published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

Their finding is rooted in a mechanism that Critcher and his colleagues call the “vicarious construal effect.” In short, by imagining an experience through somebody else’s eyes, people are themselves able to capture an appreciation that they had either lost or never possessed in the first place.

By imagining an experience through somebody else’s eyes, people are themselves able to capture an appreciation that they had either lost or never possessed in the first place.

Experimental interventions

The researchers ran more than a dozen experiments in which participants were asked to watch the same short video clip three times in a row. (These clips varied in the responses they evoked, from laughter to disgust.) Predictably, when participants were asked to rate how funny or sad or uplifting they found a particular clip on a scale from 1 to 100, ratings dropped with each successive viewing. However, by asking one group of participants to consider what somebody seeing the clip for the first time might see—by pushing people to step outside of their own experience—the researchers were able to significantly reduce the rate at which people grew habituated to the clip. That is, their ratings of their own experience dropped 60% to 70% less between the second and third viewings.

The vicarious construal effect also proved influential outside of this strict framework. In one study, for instance, participants watched short clips of Japanese anime. A subset of those who had no particular interest in the form was told to look for what an anime fan might enjoy about the clip. Through this lens, the participants themselves expressed a greater personal appreciation for what they saw. This result held even in an experiment that had people who could not speak Spanish watch a Spanish-dubbed clip of Friends. Those who were prompted to consider what a Spanish-speaking fan might enjoy in the clip liked it more themselves.

“This was a case where it seemed like the intervention would in no way be useful: These people couldn’t even speak Spanish,” Critcher says. “And yet, without understanding the dialog, they still enjoyed it more.”

This finding about a Spanish-dubbed Friends raises a key question that Critcher is now exploring: How far can vicarious construal effects reach? The degree to which somebody likes anime, or Jerry Seinfeld, or polar bears—three examples of video clips that participants watched — is a politically and morally neutral issue. Opinions on these topics aren’t classified as “wrong” or “bad.” This changes when it comes to politically charged subjects: Might a political progressive overcome some of their own biases against a conservative viewpoint if asked to consider it from the perspective of a supporter? This question becomes all the more important given the recent proliferation of fake news, in which liberals and conservatives alike are often duped into believing fictitious news stories that spread falsehoods sympathetic to their own side. Might encouraging people to consider the media through their political opponents’ eyes—the vicarious construal effect—help to eliminate political partisans’ biased tendencies?

Rediscovering joy

Whether or not this turns out to be the case, Critcher offered one important consideration in the application of the results. In all of the cases he studied, researchers told participants to adopt somebody else’s perspective, but the participants didn’t know why they were being asked to do this. It is possible that this ignorance is essential to the result. Critcher may not be able to rediscover the joy of his commute by simply asking himself what a tourist driving over the Bay Bridge would appreciate. His awareness of the deception could blunt its power.

Simply trying to think about what someone else might see actually changes the way we see and interpret what we’re doing, changes the emotions we feel.

These larger questions aside, though, Critcher reiterated the scientific legitimacy this work lends to the old adage encouraging us to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. “Simply trying to think about what someone else might see actually changes the way we see and interpret what we’re doing, changes the emotions we feel,” he says. “It can help people to rediscover what they once saw in experiences they’ve had many times, or even help people to enjoy an experience that they weren’t initially predisposed to like.”

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