Perspective-taking makes people more willing to help others in distant parts of the world

New research suggests that empathy motivates cosmopolitan behavior.

The study found that simply asking Americans to take the perspective of an individual who was suffering in a distant nation increased empathy, which in turn increased their desire to help that individual.

The researchers had 240 U.S. participants read about a person who was subjected to child labor. Half of the participants were instructed to remain “objective and detached” while the other half were told to imagine how they would feel if they were in the other person’s situation. The participants in the perspective-taking group ended up being more willing to volunteer for a campaign to end child labor.

The study was published March 2, 2017, in the journal Political Psychology.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Nicholas Faulkner of Monash University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Faulkner: It seemed to me that many global problems could be improved if individual citizens were more willing to help people from distant parts of the world. Problems like global poverty and inequality, refugee settlement, human rights abuse, and possibly even climate change could be alleviated if individuals cared more about ‘distant others’ and acted as ethical cosmopolitans. However, very little research has investigated how to encourage people to engage in ‘cosmopolitan helping’. I wanted to find an effective way to encourage this type of helping.

Of course, I’m not the first person to have tried to encourage helping. There is plenty of research showing that encouraging people to empathise with other members of their own groups encourages helping of those ingroup members. But there is an ongoing debate about whether empathy is also effective for encouraging helping of outgroup members (that is, people who don’t belong to same group), especially ones from distant nations. We know that empathy works for ingroup helping, but it wasn’t clear if it also works when you are trying to get people to help people on the other side of planet, with whom they may share very few commonalities. No experimental evidence existed on this question. So, I wanted to see if empathy worked in this case.

What should the average person take away from your study?

If you want to encourage a person to help people from distant parts of the world, ask them to imagine themselves in one of those people’s shoes. How must that person feel about what is happening to them? Ask them to try to feel the full impact of what that person has been through and how they feel as a result. This study provides the first experimental evidence indicating this technique is effective. It shows how imagining the experiences of distant others makes us more cosmopolitan.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The example used in this particular study focused child labour, and was conducted using a US-based sample. The findings need to be replicated in other contexts, and in other countries. For example, further research is needed to see if empathy has the same effect in other contexts, such as global poverty, refugee settlement, etc.