The authors asked for a first-person perspective by showing participants the face of someone they did not know, and saying: "Imagine for a moment that you are this person, walking through the world in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes." Participants were also asked to take on a third-person perspective, in which they were shown the face of another unfamiilar individual and requested: "to gather as many clues as you can about what this person might be like and to think about how they might experience the given event." (The order of taking up these perspectives was randomized.) Then participants were given five minutes to compose a brief narrative using each perspective. Next they underwent fMRI imaging while they were shown first one and then the other photo of the individuals they had thought about and written about, and while they were asked to make judgments about that person's attitudes and preferences, for instance "enjoys playing video games," and "prefers autumn to spring." They were also asked to report judgments about their own attitudes and preferences in response to the same questions. The neural activity in the ventromedial prefrontal region was higher for the judgments they made about the person they had described in first-person terms, than about the one they had described in third-person terms. They were also asked to make judgments about the personality of themselves and another person they knew well in terms such as "curious, intelligent, neurotic," and so on. When making judgments about themselves in this way, as compared with making judgments about someone else, the ventromedial prefrontal region was again preferentially activated.
The authors' conclusion was this:
We suggest that conscious attempts to adopt another person’s perspective may prompt perceivers to consider that person via cognitive processes typically reserved for introspection about the self ... our results suggest that the prosocial effects of perspective taking, such as increased empathy and reduced prejudice, may result from a blurring of the distinction between self and other. (p. 643).The implication for writers may be different from those for readers. For writers there may be a danger of writing in the first-person, because unconsciously one may then write not about the character but about oneself. For readers, a first person narrative may make it easier to identify with, and to become, the character. One should not take this latter conclusion too far, however, because we know that skilled writers can invite identification in third-person narratives, using such literary techniques as free indirect style (click here for discussion).
For both writers and readers this experiment strengthens the case that empathy involves using the self to simulate others, and provides a basis for identification in fiction.
Daniel Ames, Adrianna Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji & Jason Mitchell (2008). Taking another person's perspective increases self-referential neural processing. Psychological Science, 19, 642-644.
Jason Mitchell, C. Neil Macrae, & Mahzarin Banaji (2006). Dissociable medial prefrontal contributions to judgments of similar and dissimilar others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.