This past week, Winnie-the-Pooh just wouldn’t let me go. Please write about me, he kept whining. And when I told him I’d already written about him last week, he just looked confused. So what? Write about me again. He insisted that one time was not nearly enough, that he had far, far more to share with the world—and that, after all, the world would be quite happy to hear far, far more about him. And why is that, I wondered? Here, Christopher Robin stepped in, right out of the first chapter of Winnie the Pooh. “Because he’s that sort of Bear.”
Indeed. Solid logic if ever there was. As Christopher Robin informs us in that same chapter, Winnie loves to hear stories…as long as they are about him. And, not only does his preferred material focus on his own self, but he assumes that that focus will be the preferred one for everyone else as well. Sound a bit, well, egocentric? If it does, Pooh is not necessarily to blame. As a matter of fact, he may just be showing us something about ourselves that we’d rather not see, if we had a choice: we are all that sort of Bear. Egocentricity pervades almost all of our thoughts and decisions—and while Winnie’s insistence might be taking it up a notch, it is merely highlighting a tendency that is all too common and all too commonly ignored.
In everything he does, Winnie-the-Pooh begins with the same—entirely logical, might I add—starting point: himself. Not only are stories about him the most interesting ones, but his views, his tastes, his thoughts, his everything are the natural point of departure for considerations of anything and everything else. It’s not that Pooh doesn’t understand that others may not see the world in quite the same way; it’s that his understanding is too colored by his own perception to be of much practical value.
So, when he plots to eat honey from the bees’ nest, he realizes that bees don’t much like bears, and so masquerades as a black rain cloud. A disguise? Certainly. One that is likely to fool bees? Perhaps not. But when the bees fail to be taken in, becoming “suspicious” of the little rain cloud hovering by their nest, Pooh’s immediate reaction is not that his choice of costume was a bad one, but rather that he is dealing with “the wrong sort of bees.” It’s not me; it’s you.
But Pooh is not the only culprit. On their quest to catch a Heffalump , Piglet and Pooh fail to agree on the best bait for the Very Big Pit that will serve as the Cunning Trap for the mysterious beast.
While Piglet is quite certain that the proper thing to use would be acorns—his very favorite food—Pooh begs to differ, arguing that “Honey was a much more trappy thing than Haycorns.” Naturally, Piglet assumes that the unknown animal will like what he likes; and equally naturally, Pooh assumes the same thing. And when the trap is baited with honey, after much heated discussion? It may come as no surprise that what ends up being caught is not a Heffalump but rather, a Pooh bear.
We, too, make the same mistake over and over again, baiting our traps with honey or acorns, whatever our preference may be, and expecting that we’ll catch a Heffalump. Like Pooh and Piglet, we often forget—despite our best intentions—that Heffalumps may prefer another food altogether. Try as we may, it is incredibly difficult to get over that egocentric hump.
When we make a decision, we overestimate how many others would make the same decision as we would—the consensus bias (if we’re Pooh, we’ll overestimate how many others would choose to eat honey). And yet, we underestimate how clever they will be when compared with our own abilities—the false uniqueness and illusory superiority effects (so, while Pooh and Piglet think that they would be too smart to fall into the Cunning Trap, they assume a Heffalump will be more nave; they are cunning, he, not so much).
And we don’t stop there. We also overweigh the importance of our own experiences and underweight those of others—the spotlight effect (Pooh and Piglet assume that the habits of the Heffalump are much like their own; of course he’ll come to the place where they hope to catch him, how could he not?). In fact, even when we actively try to adjust to another person’s point of view—after all, both Piglet and Pooh honestly wanted to find something that Heffalumps would most like to eat—we may find that our adjustment remains heavily colored by our own starting perspective, something known as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. And that, perhaps, is the most disturbing part of the story: we may all truly want to understand the Heffalump’s preferences, but try as we might, our understanding will begin and end with ourselves.
In a series of studies on perspective-taking, a team of psychologists led by Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gilovich proposed to test directly the theory of egocentric adjustment, whereby we begin with our own perspective and only then adjust it to fit another person’s. In the first study, they asked participants to listen to ambiguous answering machine messages, that could be interpreted as either sincere or sarcastic. Each participant also received background information that resolved the ambiguity, making the intention of each message clear. Next, participants were split into one of two conditions: they were asked to either indicate the speaker’s intended meaning (intention condition) or anticipate how a third person, who did not have the clarifying information, would interpret the message (interpretation condition).
The researchers found that background information colored people’s thoughts in both instances: even though participants knew that the individual who would hear the message would lack any additional information, they still took that information (i.e., their own new perception of the ambiguous message) into account, rating the message as sounding objectively more sarcastic or more sincere depending on the background they’d received. They did their best to adjust—the rankings were not as extreme in the interpretation condition as they were in the intention condition—but they just couldn’t seem to shake their own unique knowledge, try as they might.
When cognitive resources were limited, the effects were even more severe. In a second study, all participants were placed in the interpretation condition, but some had to make their judgment under time pressure. These pressured participants ended up making more egocentric judgments than those who could take their time—and they made these judgments quicker the closer they were to their own perspective.
In a final study, where the participants were asked to give ranges of responses instead of exact responses (so, out of 100 other people, what percentage range would perceive the messages as sarcastic or sincere), the researchers showed that a concept known as satisficing may account for our usual less-than-accurate adjustments: as soon as we hit a plausible solution (i.e., a perspective that seems to make sense—back to the Heffalump, a food that may possibly appeal to him), we stop our search. So, we end up at the closest possible point to our own perspective that may plausibly be seen as adjusted to another point of view.
Since then, the effects have been shown in a variety of contexts and under a variety of conditions, providing themselves to be remarkably robust: we live, it seems, in a truly egocentric universe, even when we do our best to think of others.
Even our brains use our own experience as a natural starting point. In a recent functional neuroimaging study, a group of psychologists from Harvard University asked participants to judge the preferences of both themselves and another person (in either order) on a set of items. What the researchers found was that the brain, too, begins the process of thinking about the mental state of another person by looking first at one’s own mental state: activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), an area that has been linked to both self-referential processing and inferring the mental states of others, increased as preference judgments moved further away from a participant’s own preferences. In other words, the greater the self-other discrepancy, as measured by looking at the difference in assigned preference scores, the greater the MPFC activity. Even on a neural level, our first instinct is always to bait the trap with honey—and the further we travel toward considering other possible foods to use, the harder our MPFC has to work.
So, are we fated to keep looking for a Heffalump and catching ourselves instead? Not necessarily. Another study in the ambiguous message series suggested, for instance, that motivation may matter: if we are more motivated to be accurate about someone else’s perspective, we may actually become more accurate. It’s not so difficult to imagine that at the end of the day, Pooh and Piglet may not have wanted to catch the Heffalump all that much. Who knows how frightening he may have been even from the bottom of a Very Deep Pit, especially to a Very Small Animal.
Though it will always remain incredibly difficult to take someone else’s perspective without being encumbered by our own, we need not remain at the level of always suggesting honey (or acorns). For, unlike Pooh and Piglet, we can at least have the self-awareness to realize that we’ve likely adjusted our point of view less than we think we have. And maybe, just maybe, we can also be honest with ourselves about when we do want to catch the Heffalump—and when we'd rather not.