Can you ‘really’ imagine yourself in my shoes?

VANDERBILT (US)—Having empathy for others may be directly related to how easily one is able to imagine—literally—stepping into someone else’s shoes, say researchers at Vanderbilt University.

“Our language is full of spatial metaphors, particularly when we attempt to explain or understand how other people think or feel,” says Sohee Park, professor of psychology and coauthor of the report recently published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

“We often talk about putting ourselves in others’ shoes, seeing something from someone else’s point of view, or figuratively looking over someone’s shoulder.” Park says the study provides initial evidence that empathy is, at least in part, spatial.

Because people use spatial manipulation of mental representations regularly, “we have readily available cognitive resources to deploy in our attempts to understand what we see,” explains Katharine N. Thakkar, a psychology graduate student at Vanderbilt and the report’s lead author.

To test their hypothesis that empathy and spatial processes are linked, the researchers asked subjects to imagine themselves in the position of another person and to make a judgment about where the other person’s arm was pointing. Subjects were required to mentally transform their body position to that of the other person.

The researchers compared performance on the test to how empathetic the subjects reported themselves to be. People who considered themselves to be more empathetic, paid more attention to the right side of space.

Previous research has found that the left side of the face is more emotionally expressive than the right side. Since the left side of the face would be on the right side of the observer, it is possible that attending more to the expressive side of people’s faces would allow one to better understand and respond to their mental state.

The researchers also found that in female subjects only, the more empathetic people rated themselves, the longer they took to imagine themselves in the position of the person on the screen. Women generally report more empathy than men and perform worse on tests of visual-spatial abilities.

“Although it is somewhat counterintuitive that taking more time to imagine another’s physical perspective was associated with more reported empathy, people who were slower at the task might have been engaging more resources to imagine another’s mental state,” Park says.

Peter Brugger from University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland, coauthored the paper. The research was funded by ThinkSwiss, the National Association for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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