A matter of perspective

MIstakes Were Made (but not my me)

Can you justify yourself if you don't read this?

Over on Careers Debate we are having an interesting discussion about narrative approaches to career coaching/counselling.

Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book which looks at how we reconstruct our memories and perceptions in order to keep them consistent with our self image.

In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the various ways in which we delude ourselves in order to maintain a favoured self-perception. They discuss how this desire to avoid cognitive dissonance leads to extremes of self-justification in all areas of life. They provide examples from the realms of politics (obviously!), international relations, law enforcement, psychology, alien abductions, scientific research and marriage guidance.

It is an interesting book, if somewhat depressing. Personally, I think it should be compulsory reading for any politician or business leader. There is enough thought-provoking material in here to sustain several heated discussions. However, one particular set of research studies caught my attention because of their potential link to narrative work with individuals.

Lisa K. Libby has spent a long time investigating how we view our mental images of events. In particular, she has focused on the perspective we take when we visualise ourselves performing past, future or imaginary actions. Why do we sometimes visualise ourselves acting as if we are looking through our own eyes (first-person perspective) and other times as if through the eyes of some external observer (third-person perspective)?

The studies (2002 and 2005) mentioned in Mistakes Were Made relate to the fact that when we remember our past actions that are inconsistent with our current self-image we are more likely to view the memory from a third-person perspective, whereas memories that are consistent with our self-image are more likely to play back in a first-person perspective.

In the 2005 studies, Libby found that people who were asked to identify differences (or similarities) between past selves and present selves perceived a greater self-change (or more continuity) if they viewed their past actions from a third-person perspective than if they saw it from a first-person perspective.

In subsequent studies (2009) Libby and her co-workers gained a better idea of why this might be. They postulated that when we visualise activities from the first-person perspective we are drawn to concentrate on the more concrete aspects of the activity — the experienced emotions, the details and the process. However, when we visualise activities from the third-person perspective we are drawn to notice the more abstract aspects — the meaning, the context and the relationship to wider issues. They found that priming people to think about why they had performed certain actions made it more likely that they would visualise the actions from the third-person perspective, whereas getting people to concentrate on how they had performed an action induced a first-person viewpoint. The effect also worked the other way round. If participants were instructed to visualise scenes from a third-person stance, they were more likely to describe them in abstract terms related to meaning, whereas if they visualised scenes in first-person they were more likely to concentrate on the concrete actions.

The most recent study (2011) examined the impact of visual perspective on regret. They found that compared to a first-person perspective, a third-person viewpoint decreased regret for negative actions (bad things you did) in the past but it increased regret for inactions (things you wished you had done). This could have interesting implications for using counterfactual thinking in reflective practice.

So, when you are getting a client to tell their story, pay careful attention to the perspective they are using. It could influence what comes out.

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Related posts:

Further reading

  • Libby, L. & Eibach, R. (2002). Looking back in time: Self-concept change affects visual perspective in autobiographical memory. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 82(2), 167-179. DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.82.2.167
  • Libby, L., Eibach, R. & Gilovich, T. (2005). Here’s Looking at Me: The Effect of Memory Perspective on Assessments of Personal Change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(1), 50-62. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.1.50
  • Libby, L., Shaeffer, E. & Eibach, R. (2009). Seeing meaning in action: A bidirectional link between visual perspective and action identification level. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(4), 503-516. DOI: 10.1037/a0016795
  • Valenti, G., Libby, L.K. & Eibach, R.P. (2011). Looking back with regret: Visual perspective in memory images differentially affects regret for actions and inactions Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 730-737. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.008

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  1. #1 by Rosalind Kemp on 3 August 2011 - 13:08

    This is fascinating stuff. Is it really common though for people, without a particular reason, to have mental images of themselves in the third person?

    Is there a certain type of person who moves between perspectives or is it something that only happens through prompting (like for the scenarios in the above studies)?

    • #2 by David Winter on 4 August 2011 - 16:36

      Hi Rosalind
      Apparently, the more distant a memory is in time, the more likely you are to recall it from a third person perspective. This may be because you are likely to be a different person from how you were a long time ago. Although, I do wonder how much of it is to do with the fact that memories are prompted by photographs and so you get used to looking at an event with you in the picture. Also, a lot of memory is constructed and reinforced by retelling the story. If you are constantly retelling the story with someone else who was there, you might end up incorporating their perspective into your memories.

      I don’t know of any research which links memory perspective to personality type, but then I’ve only just discovered this stuff myself. Anybody out there know of anything?

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