Perspective taking instructions and self-other overlap: Different motives for helping


In two studies (N’s = 57 and 115), we demonstrate that type of perspective-taking instruction (“imagine self” vs. “imagine other”) differentially affects two motives for helping: self-other overlap and empathic concern. Imagine-self instructions produce greater self-other overlap than imagine-target and objective instructions, while both types of perspective-taking instruction promote empathic concern relative to an objective condition. In Study 2, imagine-self instructions indirectly increased the likelihood of helping via empathic concern and self-other overlap, while imagine-target instructions led indirectly to greater helping only through empathic concern. We discuss how different perspective-taking instructions may implicate different emotional and motivational paths to increasing helping.

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  1. 1.

    Although this condition has been called “objective” in the past literature, a practice we follow, researchers (Davis et al. 2004) have rightly pointed out that these instructions actually emphasize a detached state and thus are not a “control” condition in the traditional sense.

  2. 2.

    In Study 1, the measures of self-other overlap and empathic concern were correlated at r = .53. In Study 2, the correlation between these measures was r = .31.

  3. 3.

    Because the IOS and similarity questions were on different scales, they were standardized prior to aggregation. However, for descriptive purposes, we scaled the similarity question to be on the same metric as the IOS (i.e., a 7-point scale), aggregated the two measures, and present the M and SD within conditions here: Objective (M = 1.89, SD = 0.69); Imagine-Target (M = 2.29, SD = 1.24); Imagine-Self (M = 2.97, SD = 1.14).

  4. 4.

    For all reported contrast analyses throughout this paper, contrast SEs were constructed using the MSE term from the appropriate omnibus ANOVA term (see, e.g., Howell 2010). While the variances of the imagine-self and imagine-target conditions were quite different here, the pooled term is simply a descriptive estimate of the variance in empathic concern as a function of using any perspective taking instruction. For the critical (i.e., inferential) comparison in this case, the MSE from the omnibus test was used to construct the error term for the contrast. However, when conservatively using only the larger variance (i.e., from the imagine-other condition) to compute a standard error of this contrast, and using the Welch approximation (i.e., for unequal variances), the contrast remained significant, t(53) = 3.18, p < .01.

  5. 5.

    Originally, 118 participants were run in this study. Unfortunately, the helping data from three participants were lost because of experimenter error. Consequently, these three participants were removed from the study and we only used the data from the remaining 115 participants.

  6. 6.

    In Study 1, there were not enough males in each condition to examine participant gender as a factor. In Study 2, when including gender as a factor, no main or interactive effects involving gender emerged for any dependent variable, nor did any of the other factors change in their patterns of significance; thus, participant gender is not discussed further.

  7. 7.

    Again, for descriptive purposes, we present raw M and SD for the IOS and perceived similarity variables, aggregated after scaling similarity to be on a 7-point scale: Objective (M = 2.25, SD = 0.97); Imagine Target (M = 2.47, SD = 1.13); Imagine Self (M = 2.78, SD = 1.00).

  8. 8.

    Because the pattern of means across condition in both studies suggested that self-other overlap was linearly increasing from objective condition (lowest) to imagine other condition (moderate) to imagine self condition (highest), an additional exploratory test examined whether the effects of condition on likelihood of helping, through overlap, took on a linear form. This was done by creating a linear condition contrast (objective = −1, imagine-target = 0, imagine-self = 1), and using this contrast as a predictor of overlap and helping, with overlap also predicting helping. As with the test reported above, while the direct effect of the contrast on helping was not significant (p = .72), the effect of overlap on helping likelihood was significant (EXP[B] = 1.84, p = .02), and the indirect effect of the contrast on helping likelihood was significant, EXP(B) = 1.13, p < .05.


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The authors would like to thank Colton Christian and Irina Kuzmina for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Michael W. Myers.

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Myers, M.W., Laurent, S.M. & Hodges, S.D. Perspective taking instructions and self-other overlap: Different motives for helping. Motiv Emot 38, 224–234 (2014).

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  • Perspective taking
  • Instructions
  • Self-other overlap
  • Empathy
  • Helping