Why People May Think You’re An Ass When You Rely On Your Sixth Sense

Getting People's Perspectives

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘assume makes an ass out of you and me’.

This was certainly the case in 2010 when 1,167 retired military officers wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama, who was considering repealing the law that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Those retired officers used their perspective-taking ability to imagine the consequences for current soldiers if the law was repealed. They expressed their strong opposition because their imagining led them to predict that changing the law would eventually break the all-volunteer defence force.

The then-president of the Center for Military Readiness backed them and said, “They have a lot of military experience, and they know what they’re talking about.” In other words, they are the experts, and they know best.

However, the Pentagon subsequently undertook one of the largest studies in military history. They directly asked serving soldiers and their spouses what they thought, and they got a very different answer.

The survey of 115,052 soldiers and 44,266 spouses expressed few concerns, with 70% indicating they believed there would be no impact. Of the 69% who indicated they had already worked with a gay service member, 92% said it had no effect or a positive impact on team cohesion.

Unsurprisingly, the law was repealed, and a later study found that the law change was a non-event one year after its commencement.

This story highlights that perspective-taking is valuable, but only if you can connect with how that person feels over your recollection of what you did or what you felt. 

Nick Epley, a University of Chicago professor who has devoted most of his career to why we mishear each other, says, ‘If your belief about the other side’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequences’.

His research has confirmed there’s more value in perspective getting than taking.

He and his team of researchers simulated a situation that later played out similarly in real life.

In the simulation they created, groups of four people were given the same facts about what it would take to sustain the local fishing industry.  


Each group was asked to explore how to solve the dilemma fairly for all stakeholders, including other fishermen, and decide how many fish their group would harvest the following year.

The control group were only required to decide the number of fish their group would catch.

Whereas the other group was asked to take other stakeholder perspectives before deciding on their projected harvest.

The researchers found that perspective-taking exaggerated the perceived differences between the groups, increased distrust and enhanced selfishness

Perspective-taking resulted in a more rapid collapse of the fishing ecosystem.

This is worrying because when groups are in conflict, they are often advised to consider the other party’s perspective to find a solution.

We tend to believe we can accurately take other people’s perspectives like it’s a sixth sense we can trust.

However, that sixth sense has limits.


In high-stakes situations, getting perspectives by asking for them is far better than using our imagination to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Getting that perspective is only the first step, the next is to listen to what is said with curiosity and without judgement.

If you want to make sense of the situation, you need to get multiple perspectives and avoid going to one group that implies they speak for all. That group’s generalised feedback could mean you miss important nuances that enable you to find unexpected solutions.

You may not be changing laws, but what’s one problem you have right now that would benefit from this approach? 

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