Let’s Take a Ride on This Pavement!
In the famous science fiction story “The Sentry” by Fredrick Brown, we read about a war against cruel, loathsome, repugnant monsters. But proceeding with the reading, we gradually understand that the monster, the enemy against whom an atrocious war is being fought, is actually man: the point of view is that of the alien, for whom man is a monstrous creature, with only two arms and two legs, with a nauseating white skin without scales. This sudden twist completely changes our way of seeing things, as it forces us to take another perspective.
My colleagues and I had a similar opportunity to change our way of considering things around us, not through the reading of a story, but stepping onto a path that reproduced a real pavement while occupying a wheelchair. Indeed, we wanted to examine if such a perspective-taking task could change an individual’s way of looking at people with disability and other stigmatized groups. We were also interested in determining if getting around in the wheelchair in the presence of a person with disability could be more effective than having the same experience without the presence of a person with disability.
Perspective taking, or the capacity to consider the world from another individual’s viewpoint, allows a person to understand how a situation appears to someone else. It is a method that can be used to encourage people to imagine the suffering of a disadvantaged or stigmatized person. In a standard perspective-taking task, participants are introduced to an individual group member either directly or indirectly—for instance, by reading a vignette, watching a video clip, listening to an audio recording, watching a photographed person, or experiencing or observing a virtual simulation experience. In our study, as we said above, nondisabled participants were asked to navigate in a wheelchair on a path that reproduced a real pavement, so they could experience directly the difficulties that people with disabilities encounter every day along any city street. In order to recreate these difficulties, along the entire pavement there were obstacles to avoid: a road sign and a bike parked right next to it. They had to avoid hitting the overhang of a window and other obstacles, such as holes and irregular shapes of the pavement. Finally, the participants were forced to get off the pavement from its highest part, due to a car parked right near the ramp for the disabled. Before and after this experience, they took part in a group discussion about equality/diversity, ability/disability, and judgment/prejudice facilitated by a psychologist and an educator.
Over 400 students in four different high schools and one middle school in Florence (Italy) were our study participants. They were divided into three groups: in one group the experience on the pavement was facilitated by some professionals without disabilities, while in another group this experience took place in the presence of Mauro, a person in a wheelchair who was a facilitator during the different activities. In the control condition, participants did not take part in any activities related to wheelchairs or disabilities.
As we expected, the perspective-taking experience did have an impact on attitudes. Students who had the experience of the pavement in the presence of Mauro showed more positive attitudes afterwards towards people with disabilities than those in the control group. Also, empathy and intended contact were higher among students who had maneuvered the wheelchair in the presence of Mauro compared to the ones who had the same experience accompanied by people who had no disability.
One of the most important findings was that the change in participants’ willingness to have contact with people with disabilities actually lasted over two weeks after the study was over. Thus, to take the perspective of an outgroup while interacting with an outgroup member is more effective in reducing prejudice than taking the perspective of an outgroup without actually meeting any of its members. It seems that experiencing the problems and difficulties found by people with disabilities without meeting them is not sufficient to view them more favorably. Rather, such an experience could be unsuccessful if it is not made more concrete through the actual presence of a person with disability. This presence motivates individuals to truly take the perspective of others.
Surprisingly, however, even though navigating in the wheelchair with non-disabled companions was almost ineffective in reducing prejudice toward people with disabilities, it did have some positive collateral effects. Indeed, perspective taking with both disabled and non-disabled companions reduced prejudice toward secondary groups that were not directly mentioned during the intervention: immigrants and homosexuals. Even more interesting, these effects persisted at a later date.
The present study was the first showing that perspective taking with a member of the outgroup (in our case Mauro, who was also in a wheelchair) can be more effective that perspective taking without a member of the outgroup in reducing prejudice toward people with disabilities, even though perspective taking in the latter situation can also do some good. So, when you read a story, step onto a pavement, or what else, try to look at things from a different perspective. Even better, do it with someone who can show you directly what their perspective on things is.
For Further Reading
Matera, C., Nerini, A., Di Gesto, C., Policardo, G. R., Maratia, F., Dalla Verde, S., Sica, I., Paradisi, M., Ferraresi, L, Pontvik, D. K., Lamuraglia, M., Marchese, F., Sbrillo, M., & Brown, R. (2021). Put yourself in my wheelchair: Perspective‐taking can reduce prejudice toward people with disabilities and other stigmatized groups. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12734
Camilla Matera is Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Florence, Italy. Attitudes and intergroup relations are among her main research interests.