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Shifting Your Perspective

Changing your perspective is a very valuable tool for understanding a situation better and avoiding false views.

The simplest example of this is the literal one. If you look at a room from a different position, you will see different things. Some things that were hidden in one view become visible in another, and arrangements of things may be easier to recognize from one perspective than another. Viewing a baseball game from the outfield gives a very different impression of a fly ball than viewing it from behind home plate. Viewing a forest from a cliff above it provides very different understanding than viewing it from the ground among the trees.

For a long time, the motions of the planets in they sky must have seemed very bizarre. Their paths amongst the stars were strange curves with loops in them. The problem was that people were looking at the motion from the perspective of the earth. When Copernicus considered looking at their motion from the standpoint of the sun, the movement of these bodies became far simpler: they progressed in a constant direction with almost circular paths. Naturally he couldn't actually look at the planets from the sun, but he considered what the system would look like with the sun at its center and did the mathematics that showed this corresponded extremely well with what we observe from earth.  The change of perspective from earth centered to sun centered led to a much better model of planetary behavior.

To the student of physics, finding the right perspective is usually critical to solving a problem. If we watch a film of a hammer being tossed through the air, it seems to have an erratic wobbly motion. If we look at in from the perspective of a particular point in the hammer called the "center of mass", we find that the center of mass follows a nice smooth curve which is easy to calculate if the student knows the right formulas. In addition, the hammer rotates with a fixed speed around that center of mass.

Another subject in which a change of perspective can be helpful is economics. Usually economics is looked at in terms of money. Normally a person is better off if she has more money. Suppose somebody working at the mint found a way to print an extra thousand $20 bills. The person would have an extra $20,000 to spend! It doesn't seem like anybody is harmed by this, so the world is a better place, since one person is better off and nobody else was harmed. But let's look at economics from another point of view. It can be looked at as the science of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. If we look at the printing of an extra $20,000 from the standpoint of goods and services, we see that nothing of value has been added. Looking at it from the point of view of goods and services gives a different answer. One explanation of the discrepancy between the two views might be that printing extra money contributes to inflation, so to a very tiny extent, the value of everybody else's money goes down by enough to compensate for our printer's $20,000 gain. Thus there is some harm done to others, but the harm is spread out very, very thinly. Other issues might be related to the desirability of printing extra money, such as "stimulation of the economy" or "reducing the incentive of the person receiving the money to earn an honest living", but changing the economic perspective from money to goods and services is clearly important for understanding of the problem.

There is a saying "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" which reflects the fact that goods and services don't come from nowhere. "Free" radio and television is supported by advertising, so it isn't really free - we are paying for it when we buy the advertised products. Again, the "goods and services" perspective helps make this clear.

A few years ago there was a news story in Minneapolis about a particular apartment building that was notorious for the frequency of complaints to the police about drug sales. After this continued for a period of time, local politicians decided to condemn the property and tear it down. Once this was done, there were no more police calls to that location, since the building didn't exist. It appeared that crime had been reduced. That is the appearance from the perspective of the place. Looking at the situation from the perspective of the people tells a different story. Nothing had been done with the people who lived there and were involved with criminal activity except that they were forced to move. Moving isn't likely to reduce someone's involvement in drugs and criminal activity. From this perspective it seems probable that tearing down the house accomplished nothing in reducing crime.

In the cases above, the value of adopting a different perspective is that it simplifies the analysis by making it clearer which factors are relevant and which are not.

Perhaps the most common and important situation in which we benefit from looking at things from a different viewpoint is when we try to see something from another person's viewpoint. This can be valuable in resolving arguments, avoiding offending people, pleasing somebody you like, and in convincing someone of a point.

If I have a disagreement with a family member about who should do some chore or how some money should be spent, it is helpful for me to imagine myself as the other person, and try to see how they see the situation. This must include imagining their values, of course. If I'm getting my wife a gift, I should think of what she would like given her taste, not what I would want her to give me.

One approach I like when it seems necessary to criticize someone's behavior is to use "I" statements instead of "you" statements. For example, instead of saying "you're wrong about that" I could say "I have a different opinion about that," or instead of "you should have told me about it" I could say "I was disappointed that you didn't tell me about it." When I put myself in the place of someone hearing statements like these, I usually find the "I" statements less argumentative. They also help me make my point by encouraging the other person to put him or herself in my position.

If we want to change someone's opinion about something, it is very useful to look at the question from their point of view and imagine what arguments might be effective. The first thing we might recognize is that we have a better chance of success if they think of our statements as "information" rather than as an "argument." People find learning new things pleasant, but they don't like being told they are wrong.

Much of the value of looking at an issue from another person's point of view is that it helps us recognize and compensate for our own biases. We must be cautious when imagining the viewpoint of someone we don't like, for we may be tempted to assume the person is selfish or foolish, and that is unlikely to be an accurate reflection of the way the person sees himself.

If we are asking whether a particular action or policy is a "good" one, it is particularly important to consider the perspective. Some result that is good for me might not be good for others if my gain is at their expense. Similarly a policy that is good for my country may not be good for the world in general. We usually like to think of goodness in terms of people as a whole but too often we forget that and look at things from a selfish perspective.