The Empathy Milestone

Ever heard of Theory of Mind? It’s one of those complicated concepts often discussed by philosophers, but for our purposes today, we’ll consider it to be the ability to “put oneself into the shoes of another.” Or more accurately, the ability to think as another person would think based on that person’s perceptions, attitudes, and experiences.

The word EMPATHY probably comes to mind, but empathy is only one facet of this concept. Empathy is generally thought of as an emotional concern, as in, we feel for a person. Theory of mind goes deeper.

It’s no easy trick but we all develop this ability, some better than others. (Please note that very young children do not exhibit this skill, and older children or adults without this skill may have a cognitive or developmental impairment.)

Check It Out For Yourself with the Sally Anne Test.

TheoryOfMindThe easiest way to see the value of this skill is to observe a child who has not yet acquired it. The next time you happen to find yourself in the company of a 3- or 4-year-old child, try this out. You’ll need to pull in another adult, too. We’ll call him Mr. Taylor.

Pick up any object, let’s say a ping pong ball, and hide it under a cup. Let both the child and Mr. Taylor clearly see that you’ve put the ball under the cup, then ask Mr. Taylor to leave the room.

Once Mr.Taylor has moved far enough away so that he can’t see or hear you, move the ball to another location, say, behind your back. Leave the cup in the exact same spot.

Tell the child you are moving the ball and show him the new hiding place.

Invite Mr. Taylor back into the room and ask the child this question.

“If I ask Mr. Taylor where the ball is, what will he tell me?

Mr. Taylor has no reason to believe that the ball is anywhere other than under the cup. That’s where it was when he left the room.

Now here’s the interesting part. Younger children will ALWAYS blurt out, “Behind your back!” as they point to the new location of the ball. It’s as if they can’t help blurting out the new hiding place.

The child’s brain simply has not yet developed to the point where it is able to comprehend the perspective of another person. He cannot reason that since Mr. Taylor did not see that the ball had been moved, he would not know of its new location.

As the child matures intellectually, he will eventually be able to think outside his own viewpoint. At that point, his answer, of course, would be, “Mr. Taylor thinks the ball is under the cup.”

Try the experiment and see for yourself. A young child will repeatedly yell, “It’s behind your back.” And then one day, CLICK, the child will understand. He’ll give the correct answer, and like riding a bike, he’ll never lose this ability.

We do not celebrate this milestone in a child’s development, but we should realize that it’s HUGE.

Once a child is able to take on the perspective of others, he is granted an entirely new world of understanding. Through the years he will grow in his ability to understand what others – his friends, teachers, parents, even enemies – are thinking and this ability will be incredibly helpful.

The reason I’m sharing Theory of Mind today is to encourage you to utilize this ability. If you’re in disagreement with someone, or in a negotiation, or just want to get to know someone better – take the time to get inside her head. Try to see things from her perspective, then think like she would think.  You do have this ability, but you’re probably not exploiting it to its fullest.

Stephen Covey, in his classic THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, indicated we should “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Fully understanding the other viewpoint is your best first step to having others listen to you and understand your viewpoint. Why not give it a shot?

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One Response to The Empathy Milestone

  1. Mike Brinkley says:

    Enjoying your blog. Quite interesting!!!

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