2 Theory and Measurement of Social Decentering Part 2: Internal Responses, External Responses, the Multi-Dimensional Scale, and Relationship-Specific Social Decentering – Social Decentering

2Theory and Measurement of Social Decentering Part 2: Internal Responses, External Responses, the Multi-Dimensional Scale, and Relationship-Specific Social Decentering

Chapter 1 provides a definition of social decentering as well as a discussion of the first three steps in the social decentering process: activation, input, and analysis. This chapter continues laying out my theoretical model of social decentering with a discussion of outcomes, specifically internal cognitive and affective responses. Potential external responses (strategies and actions) are also presented as products of the social decentering process. Next, this chapter presents a discussion of the development of the multidimensional measure of social decentering.

Research using the Social Decentering Scale revealed a need to supplement the overall theory to include recognition of people’s ability to successfully understand and adapt to intimate partners despite weaker social decentering skills. This recognition led to supplementing the social decentering theory by identifying relationship-specific social decentering (RSSD) as a particular form of social decentering that occurs within the context of specific relationships. The rationale for this addition is discussed as well as the development of a measure to assess RSSD.

Figure 2.1: Outcomes: Internal responses.

2.1Outcomes: Internal Responses

One of the most fundamental questions surrounding the concept of empathy is whether it is an affective or cognitive process. Empathy has been treated as either just affective or both affective and cognitive. One approach even uses specific labels to distinguish each – affective empathy and cognitive empathy. While perspective- taking has been identified as a primary cognitive activity, some scholars have also used the phrase affective perspective-taking, recognizing it as a process that is distinct from cognitive perspective-taking. Inherent in this semantic confusion is the fact that humans react both cognitively and affectively to their worlds and that both responses must be included in any global concept of other-centeredness (see Figure 2.1).

The outcomes of social decentering represent the conclusions and reactions that emerge from the process of considering another person’s dispositions – it is the product of the analysis, a product that has both cognitive and affective dimensions. But it is misleading to think of human cognition as an assembly line that ends with a final product because while processing information, individuals constantly produce responses that in turn become part of the analysis. Thought is not linear but is dialectical. As individuals analyze, assemble, disassemble, and reassemble information, they react both cognitively and affectively. In simplest terms, individuals respond to both their ongoing analyses and their completed analyses. Ongoing- analysis responses are the thoughts that then serve as a foundation for additional ongoing responses (thoughts and reactions) that continue to loop upon themselves until some end-point or completed-analysis response is reached. This process can involve emotions leading to other emotions, cognitions leading to other cognitions, cognitions leading to emotions, and emotions leading to cognitions (each of these pairs can be further extended any number of times). Thus, people’s emotional response to recalling their own experiences in the target’s situation can stimulate cognitive analysis and then a further emotional response.

Cognitive and affective responses share a reciprocal relationship: Our thoughts spur our emotions and our emotions spur our thoughts, including thinking about our emotions. The nature of the relationship between cognition and affect, like the nature of emotions in general, remains unsettled. Some have argued that emotions always involve some degree of cognition (Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). Much of the research on emotion within cognitive and social psychology has primarily focused on how emotions affect cognitive processes such as information processing, judgment, impression formation, and stereotyping (for a review see Schwarz & Clore, 2007). Indeed, the relationship between emotional response and cognition comes with a caveat: Emotions can distort cognition (Berkowitz, Jaffe, Jo, & Troccoli, 2000; Clore & Huntsinger, 2007). For example, people in a happy mood process information differently than those in a bad mood (Bless, 2000). The emotional reactions that result from social decentering are likely to interfere with our objective-cognitive analysis and response. As Schwarz (1998) observed, “ Feelings may influence judgments either directly, by serving as a source of information, or indirectly, by influencing what comes to mind” (p. 245).

Wyer and Srull (1989) presented a general model of social information processing that identifies a variety of units, such as “executor,” “comprehender,” “encoder/ organizer,” and “inference maker.” They identify these units as stages in the cognitive process; for example, “inference maker” encompasses the same cognitive activities that contribute to the completed-analysis response of social decentering. The final unit of their model, “response selector,” represents the final stage of social decentering, strategy, and actions. Suffice it to say, considerable research and theory has been directed toward mapping the manner in which humans process information and to capture the processes underlying emotion. I will not review that research here, but will instead focus on what is most germane to the theory of social decentering.

2.1.1Cognitive Response

Cognitive responses consist of the thoughts, interpretations, expectations, judgments, inferences, decisions, and understanding that occur while considering another person’s dispositions in a given situation. These responses build upon our observations, knowledge, and analysis of ourselves, people we know, the person we are considering, and people in general. Chapter 1 began with an example where a husband considers telling his wife about the woman that flirted with him but concludes that she might be jealous. His conclusion represents a cognitive response produced through social decentering. In addition, he made a decision on his external response (not to say anything) based on the results of the social decentering process.

One cognitive response might be to reevaluate or reassess the previous input and analysis that occurred while decentering. Having reached some conclusion about another person’s dispositions, people might stop to consider how valid and legitimate their analysis has been. People seek to determine their level of confidence in their deductions. In doing so they might decide that their conclusions are based on inadequate information or insufficient analysis. For example, an older teacher considers adding a new assignment in the middle of the semester and reflects on how as a student she personally enjoyed unexpected changes and challenges (use of self). But she might be concerned that today’s students won’t enjoy the challenge of an additional assignment, so she seeks additional information from some students that she knows. This process of evaluation is almost concurrent with the process of analysis as tentative insights are developed and then assessed. The two processes can occur repeatedly as people strive to reach some point of acceptable confidence in their conclusions. Before reaching outcomes, social decentering involves developing a theory that fits the information and analysis; the subsequent cognitive responses include developing hypotheses and testing them against what is known or deduced. These hypotheses, which are either supported or rejected, serve as the basis for strategic planning (if any external response is even warranted). Rejected hypotheses necessitate amending the original theory – returning to the input and analysis stages of social decentering.

The most general conclusion reached as a cognitive response is understanding. The collection of information and the manner in which we organize and process that information represents our understanding of another person. Our understanding of another person allows us to identify why our partners have acted the way they did, to predict how they will act in the future, and to better develop strategies on how to behave towards them (Finkenauer & Righetti, 2011).

2.1.2Affective Response

While theories and research on human emotion are extensive, no general theory of emotion has gained universal acceptance. Rather than reviewing the various perspectives, I will present a more general discussion that focuses on how emotions emerge from and affect the social decentering process. I define affective responses as the feelings and emotions individuals experience as the result of social decentering. In considering another person’s situation, individuals may rekindle their own previous emotional responses. In applying the use of self method of social decentering, individuals may recall or even re-experience emotional memories. Those rekindled feelings might then serve as the basis for their further cognitive analysis and reflection. We have memories of feelings; we can remember feeling depressed, in love, fearful, or joyful. Such memories have both cognitive and affective elements. When we learn or infer another person’s affective state, we use our memory of feelings. Through social decentering, you can infer the affective state of a friend who tells you she has fallen in love which can lead to reflecting on what it means to be in love and perhaps experiencing that emotion again yourself to some degree. But our emotional response to a situation might not be the same as that of our target. For example, parents might experience more nervousness than their children do when watching the children in a school pageant. Any emotional reaction that decenterers experience might lead to a cognitive analysis in which they reflect on whether the target is likely to be feeling the same emotions as they are. An important product of effective social decentering then is for decenterers to recognize that their own emotional reactions are similar to or different from their targets’. Batson (2009) cautioned that the feelings evoked through “imagine-self” may distract from and actually inhibit imagining other’s emotional response.

Emotions may also be aroused in direct response to the cognitive analysis. After analyzing another person’s perspective, individuals might experience emotional responses to their own thoughts. As a husband thinks about how his wife will react to his failure to get her an anniversary gift, he concludes that she will be disappointed and hurt which leads him to feel guilty. Such feelings of guilt are “social emotions” (Leary, 2000), that is emotional responses within the social context (e.g., guilt, jealousy, loneliness, or shame). One consequence of social decentering is likely to be social emotions – “emotions that are aroused by real, imagined, anticipated, or remembered encounters with other people” (Leary, 2000, p. 331). The cognitive analysis also might arouse emotions because of cognitive appraisal. Cognitive appraisal theory posits that emotions arise in response to “evaluative judgments about what is happening” (Lazarus, Kanner, & Folkman, 1980, p. 194). If the outcome of the social decentering process involves developing and evaluating adaptive strategies, then it evokes cognitive appraisal. This appraisal involves determining the impact and any associated benefit or harm that the other person might experience from a situation. Those determinations result in emotional responses – hope, joy, fear, anxiety. The type and degree of emotional arousal that decenterers experience are tied to the way in which they see themselves responding to the situation. As such, placing yourself in someone else’s situation means considering how that situation affects the other person and then potentially experiencing the emotions that the other person is feeling. This consequence, experiencing the emotions that another person is experiencing, reflects the conceptualization of empathy as a vicarious response.

Within the theory of social decentering, empathy is a subcategory and is defined more narrowly than it is typically defined in the literature. Specifically, empathy is defined as that phenomenon in which people experience emotional responses that are concordant with their target’s emotional responses. One scholar who has defined empathy in this manner sees it as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel” (Eisenberg, 2000, p. 677). The degree of concordance varies, and total concordance is rare. To have empathy in this sense at least, people’s emotional responses need to be fairly similar to those of their target. For example, if you empathize with a friend who was in financial ruin but just won the lottery, you would experience a feeling of great relief, concordant with your friend’s feeling. But the nature of your feelings of relief is unlikely to be exactly the same. How similar must such feelings be in order to truly be considered empathy? Empathy is best conceptualized as occurring in degrees along a continuum with the similarity between the emotional responses ranging from slight to complete.

An important quality of empathy as an emotional response is vicariousness. A truly empathic response occurs as the result of considering or becoming the ephemeral other, not as a direct result of the situation itself nor as a result of emotional contagion or mirroring. Finding out a parent has died might produce similar emotional responses from two siblings, but their emotional responses would not be considered being empathic. Empathy would occur when a good friend of one of the sibling experiences similar feelings by putting herself in that sibling’s shoes. In other words, some level of cognitive processing must also take place that takes into account the other person. Eisenberg and Strayer (1987) argued that empathy involves the empathizers differentiating between themselves and others–they experience and distinguish their own emotional states from that of their targets. Thus, individuals recognize their own feelings while they experience the feelings of the other person.

Cognitive processing distinguishes empathy from emotional contagion or mirroring. In emotional contagion, a person engages in the same emotion as another person in response to the other person’s behavior without social cognitive processing. For example, a person screams in fear, so the person next to her screams as well without any understanding why (without social cognitive processing). This contagion effect occurs across species, and there is neurological evidence of neuron mirrors that are fired in reaction to such emotional situations. After such automatic emotional reactions, however, people might reflect on the other person’s emotional reaction, prompting social decentering, which then might lead to empathy or other emotional responses.

Most of the emotional reactions evoked in individuals from social decentering are likely to be discordant with the target’s actual feelings. Discordant responses are not empathy, but they are still legitimate products of social decentering. Any type of emotion can be evoked through social decentering. Affective social decentering responses run the gamut of positive and negative human emotions – love, joy, happiness, anticipation, jealousy, fear, distrust, anger, disappointment. One discordant emotion that is often linked to being other-oriented is sympathy. Sympathy is a unique emotional reaction because it occurs as the direct result of social decentering. To feel sorry for another person’s situation requires some consideration of the other person’s situation – social decentering. As Eisenberg and Strayer (1987) put it, sympathy means “‘feeling for’ someone, and refers to feelings of sorrow, or feeling sorry for another” (p. 6). Chismar (1988) extended the notion of sympathy to include positive regard, a sense of concern, and even support and compassion. Eisenberg (2000) later added that sympathy is felt toward those who are distressed or needy. But it is possible to feel sorry for someone who is experiencing positive emotions. For example, a friend who wins the lottery is probably feeling ecstatic, but through social decentering, you feel sympathy because you know that he will be pestered by people wanting him to share his newfound wealth and that he doesn’t know how to say “No.” People sometimes want other people to feel sympathy for their plights. Perhaps feeling distressed or needy, they seek understanding and support. Underlying their desire for sympathy are their implicit expectations that the other person (expectations more likely held for a friend than a stranger) will appreciate their situation (socially decenter), feel sorry for their situation, and perhaps hopefully even provide comfort and support.

Providing a framework for identifying the various affective responses that can be created through social decentering, Ortony, Clore, and Collins (1988) explored possible emotional responses to other people, which they called “fortunes-of-others emotions.” Under their framework, a given situation is classified as either desirable or undesirable to the other person. The observer can be either pleased or displeased by the other person’s circumstance, thus producing four conditions: pleased – desirable, displeased – undesirable, pleased – undesirable, and displeased – desirable. These conditions create four respective categories of emotional responses: happy-for and sorry-for (good-will emotions), and gloating and resentment (ill-will emotions). Inherent in this model is the observer’s evaluation of a situation being desirable or undesirable to the other person. Through social decentering, then, we can assess the desirability of a given situation from the other person’s perspective. That assessment arouses the emotions associated with one of the four response categories. Thus, if we are displeased about something unpleasant happening to someone, we feel sorry for that person. But if we are pleased about something unpleasant is happening to another person, we are likely to gloat.

By engaging in social decentering, individuals are likely to experience emotional reactions that are different from those they would experience otherwise. In coming home from work to an elegant dinner that her husband has worked hard to prepare, the wife who does not socially decenter (i.e., takes a more egocentric perspective) might experience only the emotion of relief that she doesn’t have to worry about fixing dinner. Thus, her husband might feel taken for granted and unappreciated. But if the wife engages in social decentering, she might experience greater feelings of love toward her husband because she understands the effort and loving care he put into making dinner. Thus, her husband is likely to feel that his wife understood, appreciated, and confirmed his effort and love. The impact on the husband in both cases will likely affect his subsequent behavior toward his wife (e.g., he may treat his egocentric wife coldly and never again make another elegant meal for her). A goal of social decentering is to produce affective responses that lead to effective interactions and relationships; that is, by taking into consideration another person’s dispositions, the decenterer increases the likelihood of having emotional responses that are appropriate to the situation and facilitate successful interactions. Through social decentering, a person knows not to display inappropriate emotional responses (e.g., laughing at another person’s troubling situation) because of the likely impact such a display would have on the other person. People may have their feelings hurt if they perceive their partner’s emotional response is inappropriate, believing that their partner should be sensitive and understanding, that is, to socially decenter. Again, people have an expectation about their partners’ ability and even responsibility to socially decenter. This expectation is a key element of a more specific form of social decentering, relationship-specific social decentering, discussed later in this chapter.

As with cognitive responses, individuals might reevaluate the input and analysis that led to the emotions they are experiencing in order to determine the accuracy, reliability, and appropriateness of those emotional responses. The person experiencing sympathy for his lottery winning friend might decide to refocus on the emotions his friend is experiencing, resulting in a more empathic response of joy and celebration. But emotions are not often easy to control or manage, and decenterers may express (at least nonverbally) their initial emotions to the other person. Feeling sympathy for the lottery winner might result in the decenterer initially displaying constrained or negative affective nonverbal behaviors that cause the lottery-winning friend to question his support. Such reevaluation of emotional responses represents another way in which affective and cognitive responses interact as individuals turn their thoughts toward their feelings.

2.2External Responses: Strategies and Actions

Figure 2.2: Strategies and actions: External responses.

Conceptually, the development of strategies and actions is not an actual stage within social decentering, but a separate activity that occurs subsequent to social decentering (see Figure 2.2). Often times the definition of empathy includes production of some empathic behavior (Hojat, 2016) but others argue that empathy should be viewed as a motive to behave rather than an inherent direct external response (Cuff, Brown, Taylor, & Howat, 2016). But as social decentering is conceptualized, individuals can stop the process at the internal response stage. They can reach an understanding of another person’s situation without displaying an external reaction, such as a change in their behavior. In trying to explain the failure to find a correlation between self-ratings of perspective-taking and other’s ratings of the target’s perspective-taking, Park and Raile (2010) discuss two steps to perspective-taking: understanding the other’s perspective and demonstrating that understanding to the other. They note a person’s self-rating includes perspective-taking that stops after step one, but observer ratings focus on the behaviors and infer the cognitive process. Thus, people might engage in social decentering, as in perspective-taking and attribution, simply for the goal of understanding the other. Sometimes people appear as though they have not engaged in social decentering because they display no specific adaptive behaviors. For example, a socially decentering parent still scolds his child for eating a cookie right before dinner, even though he understands the child’s urge for a cookie. The conclusions that people generate through social decentering provide the foundation for their decisions to act. Social decentering provides three functions relative to developing strategies and actions:

  1. Determining the need to act and/ or develop a strategy.
  2. Providing a foundation for developing strategies.
  3. Serving as a tool for assessing each potential strategy.

Social decentering helps us in meeting our personal goals by determining if we need to take any kind of action. In using social decentering as a sense-making activity, you reach a point where your need to act becomes apparent. You observe a woman sitting on a park bench crying, what do you do? You might impulsively express concern or offer help. Or you might stop to consider the cause of the woman’s tears (social decentering) and whether you even need to act. When it becomes apparent that you need to do something for the crying woman, to take action, that need to act leads to developing a plan – a strategy. Strategies represent options from which we choose as a way of adapting, addressing problems, and ultimately accomplishing our personal goals.

But people often do not engage in social decentering and therefore don’t act when they might otherwise have done so. They might intentionally shy away from social decentering because they are concerned about how they might feel or that they will be required to act. Requests for charitable contributions often begin by trying to activate an other-oriented perspective (to empathize or socially decenter) toward those in need that will in turn spur a donation. Batson (2009) suggested that the likelihood of an altruistic response depends on whether people employ an “imagine-other” or “imagine-self” perspective. Those adopting an imagine-other perspective feel empathy for the target and are likely to engage in altruistic behaviors. Those adopting an imagine-self perspective might be altruistic, but they might also feel personal distress causing them to design behaviors to relieve this tension between altruism and their personal distress (e.g., changing the TV channel to avoid the ad) – that is, to repress their other-orientation.

Social decentering’s focus on another person’s dispositions and the specific nuances of the situation provides a foundation for developing plans, strategies, and actions. Berger (1988) described the relationships between plans, actions, and goals:

A plan specifies the actions that are necessary for the attainment of a goal or several goals. Plans vary in their levels of abstraction. Highly abstract plans can spawn more detailed ones. Plans can contain alternative paths for goal attainment from which the social actor can choose (p. 96).

Berger (1997a) viewed the planning process as moving from an abstract plan to concrete actions. Social decentering helps individuals move plans from the abstract to the concrete. The thoughts and feelings generated by social decentering provide the informational bases for developing strategies and plans. The most basic plan requires only the recollection and implementation of a previous strategy that has worked in a given situation with a given person (a canned plan). A wife travels for work with her male boss and understands that her husband feels jealous and insecure. During a prior trip she allayed his fears by talking to him online via Skype right before going to sleep each night. Recognizing that he probably still feels insecure, she uses the same strategy during her current trip. One weakness in repeatedly employing the same strategy is the potential to skip social decentering and apply the strategy out of habit. Such rote application of a strategy fails to make adaptations for changes that might have occurred. For example, the husband of the traveling wife no longer feels insecure, but he becomes concerned by his wife’s continued efforts to assure him of her fidelity.

In Berger’s (1997a) plan-based theory of strategic communication, people are motivated to formulate specific plans and courses of action when they lack any applicable canned plan. Berger further theorized that the stronger the desire to plan and the more complex the information, the more complex the plan. By generating insight into others and their situations, social decentering provides information that be used in social planning. As people come to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, they can develop and organize strategies around that understanding. Because the information and analysis generated through social decentering vary in complexity, the complexity of the strategies varies accordingly: the greater the complexity of the social decentering, the greater the complexity of the potential strategy. Part of that complexity arises from anticipating a partner’s conversational moves which leads to greater success in achieving social goals (Berger, 2008). And anticipating a partner’s moves means engaging in social decentering.

Berger (1997b) identified uncertainty as another factor that affects the development and complexity of plans. He proposed that “as uncertainty concerning the message target’s linguistic/ knowledge status, goals/plans, or affective state increases, planning should become increasingly data driven or bottom up” (p. 227). In essence, the less that individuals know about the other person, the more they need information to develop plans, which may motivate them to engage in social decentering. But individuals who specifically take into account their partner’s goals (i.e., who are other-oriented) are generally more effective as well (Berger, 2008).

In discussing the activation stage of social decentering, I suggested that people can be motivated to socially decenter in order to analyze potential strategies. As they develop these possible strategies, people can use social decentering as a tool for assessing each strategy’s impact and effectiveness. People apply the process of social decentering to each alternative strategy to predict its likely outcome and the probability of achieving their goals. The strongest decenterers should be the most effective at assessing the outcomes of various strategies and selecting the best. But just because people know the best strategy to implement doesn’t mean the strategy will be successful. For example, a person might lack the skills or resources needed to implement the strategy. At the beginning of this chapter, social decentering was defined in terms of considering another person a given situation. Each potential strategy then can represent a variation in adapting to that given situation. But people are able to analyze potential strategies only if they are able to generate alternative situations or strategies – to plan. People might have an ability to socially decenter but little ability to generate alternative strategies.

People may possess canned plans, frequently used plans that have become part of their repertoire and can be plugged into given situations. They may implement such a plan without much deliberation or use of social decentering, or they may implement the plan after evaluating it to see if it applies to the situation. If a canned plan is the only strategy that they are considering, the best that social decentering can do is to help them decide whether to accept or reject that strategy. Thus, social decentering can reduce the likelihood of failure by ruling out unsuitable canned plans without necessarily increasing the likelihood of success since there are no alternative plans to consider. For example, a person applied the same canned plan ten times, but it only fit five of the situations resulting in five failed attempts. Suppose social decentering confirmed the appropriateness of the canned plan in four of the five situations, and correctly alerted the person four out of five times when the canned plan would not work. Applying social decentering then, resulted in the person acting appropriately four times (compared to five without social decentering), inappropriately two times (compared to five without social decentering), and withholding any action in four situations (compared to none without social decentering). However, recognizing the four cases in which the canned plan won’t work may motivate the person to search for alternatives and thus improve on the five out of ten success rate.

2.2.1Factors Limiting External Responses

Although social decentering does not always lead to a plan or any display of an external response, some approaches to other-centeredness center around external displays. For example, empathy and perspective-taking are often identified with specific behaviors, particularly in terms of counseling (see, for example, Carkhuff, 1969). While people’s behaviors might directly reflect their use of social decentering, the absence of observable behaviors does not necessarily reflect their failure to engage in other-centeredness. Here are some factors that might contribute to the lack of an apparent or external response:

1.Lack of ability. Individuals might lack the ability to engage in the requisite behavior. Through social decentering, individuals can identify a specific strategy that may be an effective response, but they might lack the particular skills required to enact that strategy. In discussing plan-based strategic communication, Berger (1997a) noted that “knowledge structures are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the production of effective social action. Various performance skills also determine the ultimate effectiveness of social action” (p. 7).

For example, individuals who are extremely uncomfortable with acts of affection might be unable to provide a hug to a friend who is distraught about the death of a parent, even though they know it would help the friend.

2.Lack of self-control. Individuals might lack the ability to refrain from making an inappropriate response. Although through social decentering, individuals might know what the appropriate emotional response should be, they might still respond inappropriately. People might still laugh when they find other people’s misfortunes amusing, even though they know that such a response will upset the other person. Lacking self-control, people blurt things out that they wish they had not (put their foot in their mouth), knowing that what they’ve said will make the situation worse or evoke an unintended response from the other person. Claiming you have socially decentered and still acting inappropriately might be viewed by the target as an even worse offense.

3.Lack of motivation. Individuals might lack the personal motivation to enact a response or adapt, particularly when they regard the given relationship as unimportant or undesirable. They may be motivated enough to engage in social decentering but not enough to alter their behavior. An employee who understands the challenges a boss is facing in his divorce might choose not to provide comfort or support because she does not like him.

4.Self-interest. Individuals are less likely to enact or adapt a response if they regard their own personal goals and needs as more important than those of the other person. After considering another person’s disposition, individuals might decide that the most effective response to the other person requires forfeiting or altering their own goals. Thus, they might decide not to accommodate the other person. For example, a husband understands his wife’s feelings about going out for dinner on their anniversary, but doing so means not watching his favorite team play in the Super Bowl. His decision to stay home to watch the game makes it look like he has not socially decentered. A social decenterer must also weigh outside goals against the goals of the target when deciding on a response. Thus, despite understanding an employee’s dispositions surrounding a personal crisis at home, a manager might decide to fire the employee because the employee is jeopardizing the company by his mistakes at work. In doing so, the manager is placing the organization’s goals and her own managerial responsibilities above adapting to the employee’s needs.

5.Lack of confidence/self-efficacy. Individuals might lack confidence or self-efficacy in their social decentering ability, thereby undermining their confidence in applying the strategies they develop. Sometimes, as people try to decide which course of action will work best with another person, they second-guess themselves. Individuals need to be confident in the information they have and in their analysis in order to develop an effective strategy; lacking such confidence, they are less likely to engage in any adaptive behavior. Those without self-efficacy believe they are incapable of enacting the strategy.

6.Asynchronicity. Individuals’ social decentering ability might be asynchronous with their enacted behavior and thus the connection between the two is not apparent. Much of our social decentering occurs in response to two types of situations: an impending situation or a prior one. In the first situation, social decentering is part of planning; the strategies developed are for use at a later time. People think about how they might gain something from another person and, through analyzing the other person’s dispositions, select a strategy to implement later. For example, in planning the best approach to ask your boss for a day off, you develop a strategy that involves waiting until Monday morning when the boss is usually in a good mood. In the second situation, social decentering is used to reach an understanding of prior events; therefore, it does not typically call for any specific response. One value of such reflective social decentering is that the resulting conclusions and inferences become part of the information base on which to anticipate and analyze subsequent situations. But this postmortem application, people might analyze why a situation turned out poorly and through social decentering, develop a way to repair the problem or regain lost goals; for example, deciding to apologize to your co-worker for something you said the day before.

7.Noninteractive context. Finally, individuals might engage in social decentering for situations in which external responses are not necessary. Watching the news about a family who has lost their home to a fire may trigger reflection on the family’s experience but does not require specific adaptive behavior. Social decentering can be applied to people we observe in situations on TV, in a movie, in a novel, or whom we hear about from friends. In the narrowest sense of empathy, as a concordant emotional reaction to another person’s situation, people may experience the same emotions as a character or observed person without conveying that to the target.

When individuals’ affective and cognitive responses are followed by their decision to strategize or act, the breadth and depth of that external response depend on the thoroughness of the analysis and the quality of information that they gleaned. Cursory processing produces narrow and shallow affective and cognitive responses. But cursory processing, which minimizes resource expenditure, might still produce strategies that are sufficient to meet the decenterer’s goals. When such cursory-based strategies do not produce the desired results, people might reengage in social decentering, seeking additional information and conducting a more intensive analysis depending upon their assessment of the deficiency. They might recycle through this process several times, depending on their social decentering skills, their ability to gain information, and their ability to develop and implement strategic responses (see Figure 2.3). Unfortunately, people sometimes engage repeatedly in the same failed strategy without recognizing the deficiency and the need to revise their approach. For example, a man with weak social decentering skills uses the same failed affinity-seeking strategy with each new woman he meets. His continued failures stem from not reexamining his strategy from the woman’s perspective.

Figure 2.3: External response recycling.

2.3A Multidimensional Measure of Social Decentering1

Conceptually, social decentering is multidimensional, having three primary dimensions: the input, the analysis, and the response. Within each primary dimension are additional subdivisions: Input is divided into experience-based information and imagination-based information; analysis is divided into use of self, specific-other, and generalized-other; and response is divided into cognitive and affective. The multidimensional conceptualization of social decentering led to the decision that the measure should also be multidimensional. The items that constitute the scale are direct extensions of each of the dimensions of social decentering. Such a multidimensional measure differs significantly from that of a popular measure of empathy, Davis’s Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).

Davis (1980, 1983) developed the IRI by pooling items from pre-existing measures of empathy as well as creating original items. He then subjected more than 50 items to a factor analysis that produced four significant factors, and he refined the relevant items to produce the final index. In labeling the four factors, he treated each factor as a subscale of empathy: fantasy scale, perspective-taking scale, empathic concern scale, and personal distress scale. An extensive amount of research has been conducted using the IRI as a measure of empathy with the analysis being based primarily on the subscales. But this research often only finds significant results on the perspective-taking and empathic concern subscales. Although Davis (1983) argued that his validation studies show that the four subscales are each tapping similar but different dimensions of empathy. The subscales are rarely combined as a single measure of empathy, which would seem to indicate that rather than measuring four dimensions, they are actually measuring four interdependent but different phenomena. The incorrect use of combining the scales as a measure of empathy led one researcher to publish a reprisal to other researchers about misusing the scale since some subscales are actually negatively related to each other (D’ Orazio, 2004). Indeed, the perspective-taking subscale clearly focuses on the cognitive response, whereas the empathic concern and personal-distress subscales assess the affective response. One inherent problem with the IRI is it uses existing measures of empathy (e.g., Stotland’s Fantasy–Empathy Scale) to define and operationalize empathy, so any errors or inaccuracies within those conceptualizations are embedded in the subscales. Another problem is that although the subscales measure some type of response, an examination of the items raises questions about whether those subscales are indeed assessing other-oriented or empathic responses. For example, the empathic concern subscale consists of such items as “I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person,” “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” and “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen.” Although such items do assess an individual’s own emotional disposition, they do not particularly require taking into consideration the other person’s dispositions. In using the scales to analyze romantic relationships, even Davis only used three of the four subscales as a measure of empathy, omitting the fantasy subscale (Davis and Oathout, 1987).

The variety of conceptual definitions of empathy has resulted in a corresponding variety of assessment measures (Bayne & Hays, 2017). Despite the variety of measures of empathy, role taking, and perspective-taking, few of them assess the social cognitive processes or abilities involved in making sense of other’s behaviors. Social cognition research related to domains such as attribution and implicit personality theory has tended to be fairly state oriented, depending on the manipulation of inputs and an examination of outputs rather than on examining the processing abilities themselves. One reason for this failure to examine processing abilities might be the inherent problem of developing a multidimensional measure that reflects the process nature of social cognition. Many years ago, Taylor and Fiske (1981) suggested resolving this problem by developing middle-range methodologies for middle-range theories that set the levels and scope of a process model. The levels and scope of social decentering theory and its corresponding measure fit Taylor and Fiske’s call for middle-range theories and methodologies.

2.3.1Item Development and Reliability

The multidimensionality of social decentering is best operationalized by using a multivariate method such as the facet approach (Bell, 1986; Borg, 1979; Dancer, 1985). Facet theory, first introduced by Louis Gottman in 1954, combines a theoretical perspective with a statistical procedure (Canter, 1982). The facet approach provides a prespecified multivariate theoretical model that is subsequently tested (Canter, 1982). Comparing facet theory with its use of smallest space analysis to factor analysis, Maslovaty, Marshall, and Alkin (2001) noted the advantage of the facet approach in connecting theory and analysis. The use of smallest space analysis provides the flexibility of examining facets, partitioning items based on the theory, and analyzing more components or dimensions of the theory than does factor analysis.

Facets represent any set of mutually exclusive categories (Canter, 1985). According to Brown (1985) “facets are proposed by the investigator and are comprised of elements which define the different values that logically and completely describe all of the variations within any facet” (p. 22). The relationships among these sets of categories (facets) are specified in a mapping sentence. Drawing one element of each facet out from the mapping sentence creates a unique facet combination called a “structuple.” Thus, a number of structuples (facet combinations) can be derived from any given mapping sentence by combining the various elements of each facet. Facet design sets the limits of the questions and the responses that are tested (Borg & Lingoes, 1987). Questionnaire items can then be generated for each of the facet combinations, thus providing a strong link between the originating theory and its corresponding measure. As a result, each questionnaire item contains more than one dimension.

The facet approach, then, prescribes the nature of the items and relations to be tested between the three dimensions of social decentering, and this nature is reflected in the construction of a mapping sentence:

When a person (X) considers another person’s response (Y) to a given situation (Z), that person (X) might

draw upon (A) (a1 experience-based) information
(a2 imagination-based)
applied to or derived from (b1 self) analysis
the use of (B) (b2 specific-other)
(b3 generalized-other)
producing a (C) (c1 cognitive) response.
(c2 affective)

The three facets (A, B, C) in the 7 mapping sentence produce 12 unique structuples (facet combinations). Each structuple varies in its associated elements (two for facets A and C and three for facet B), thus producing a 2 × 2 × 3 factorial of 12 possible iterations. For example, one structuple reads: “When a person (X) considers another person’s response (Y) to a given situation (Z), that person (X) might draw upon (a1) experience-based information applied to or derived from the (b1) use of self analysis, producing a (c1) cognitive response.” This structuple is reflected in the following item that was developed for the instrument: “Sometimes I can understand what others are thinking by recalling the thoughts I have had when I experienced a similar situation.” In this item, “recalling the thoughts” represents drawing on experience-based information, “I have had when I experienced a similar situation” represents use of self analysis, and finally, “Sometimes I can understand” represents a cognitive response. In the instrument, three such items were developed for each of the 12 structuples to create a 36-item measure.

Information concerning structuples and the social decentering theory was presented to three colleagues who then evaluated an initial pool of 75 items for each item’s fit to one of the twelve structuples. Thirty items were dropped and others refined. Further testing of the remaining 45 items in two pilot studies led to further revisions, deletions, and additions of items in order to establish three reliable items for each structuple.

The multidimensional nature of each scale item means that items can be combined according to their shared elements to produce subscales. Seven subscales were created based on their association with the three facets and their elements: (a1) experience-based subscale, (a2) imagination-based subscale, (b1) use of self subscale, (b2) use of specific-other subscale, (b3) use of generalized-other subscale, (c1) cognitive response subscale, and (c2) affective response subscale. The two elements for the information facet mean that half of the 36 items reflect one element (experience-based), and the other half the other element (imagination-based), thus producing two 18 item subscales, one for each of the two elements. Similarly, two 18 items subscales emerge for responses – cognitive and affective. The analysis facet with its three elements results in 12 of the 36 items reflecting each of its elements; that is, the use of self consists of 12 items, use of specific-other consists another of the 12 items, and use of generalized-other consists of the remaining 12 items.

The validity and reliability tests for the Social Decentering Scale and its subscales were conducted between 1988 and 1990 using the final 36-item instrument – the Social Decentering Scale (see Appendix A). During this time the measure was administered to university students in various communication courses. A total of 587 surveys were completed: 256 males (44%), 315 females (54%), and 16 not reported (<3%). The average age of the participants was 22.26 years.2 Participants responded to the items on a five-point scale, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The responses to all relevant items were totaled to create a score for each subscale. The total of all 36 items represents the respondent’s overall score on the Social Decentering Scale with possible scores between a low of 36 to a high of 180 with the midpoint being 108. The means, standard deviations, and reliabilities for the overall instrument and each of the facet subscales are presented in Table 2.1 for the composite data collected between 1988 and 1990 (Redmond, 1995).

Between 1992 and 2010, I have collected data in six additional studies using the Social Decentering Scale. I combined and analyzed the responses to the Social Decentering Scale from these studies to obtain further evidence of the reliability of the scale and subscales. This analysis provides additional support for the strength of the scale (see Table 2.1).

One difference between the two samples is the average age of the respondents. The average age in the more recent sample is 26.1 years, whereas the average age of the participants in the 1988–1990 sample was 22.3 years. Part of the reason for the older average in the more recent sample is that the sample includes 101 married couples (mostly nonstudents) with an average age of 47.1 years. Without those 202 respondents, the average age from the remaining recent five studies is 21.1 years. The more recent sample has a combined 1,081 participants: 483 males (44.7%), 590 females (54.6%), and 8 not reported (>1%). The populations represented in the 1988–1990 and 1992–2010 samples differ in both the age and nature of the participants (the more recent studies include dating couples, married couples, and students drawn from upper-level communication courses). For this reason, differences in means cannot be analyzed for examining possible longitudinal changes in the social decentering of college students. But the coefficients of reliability are unaffected by such variations in the samples and have remained consistent attesting to the strength of the measure.

Table 2.1: Means, standard deviations, and alpha coefficients.

Female respondents scored significantly higher than male respondents on the overall Social Decentering Scale in both the 1988–1990 sample (female mean = 129.9; male mean = 119; t = 8.71, df = 562, p < 0.001) and the 1992–2010 sample (female mean = 128.7; male mean = 119.64; t = 9.26, df = 1071, p < 0.001) and on all of the subscales. Such a sex difference is consistent with the research on empathy (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972) and perspective-taking (Davis, 1980).

To examine test–retest reliability, I administered the Social Decentering Scale to students in an upper-level communication course and then readministered it 14 weeks later. The form used in this study contained the incorrect item that resulted in a 35-item Social Decentering Scale. Nonetheless, the test–retest produced a significant correlation of r = 0.84 (N = 25, p < 0.001). The subscale test–retest correlation coefficients ranged from 0.71 to 0.86.

2.3.2Facet Analysis

I used the ALSCAL multidimensional scaling package of SPSS-X to analyze the facets and structuples (facet combinations) of the Social Decentering Scale. I combined the three items associated with each structuple to form measures of the 12 structuples. I then analyzed the 12 structuples for their fit in creating three unique planes in a three-dimensional model, each associated with a facet. The ALSCAL analysis was based on a treatment of the correlations among the subscales as conditional ordinal data using a Euclidean distance model. Kruskal’s stress was 0.07 (R squared = 0.96). This stress value is considerably better than the 0.15 that Norton (1980) suggested for a good solution to nonmetric multidimensional scaling. The three dimension coordinates produced by ALSCAL using the 1988–1990 data show the relative location of the 12 facet combinations that are reported in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2: Coordinates for three-dimensional model of social decentering subscales.

The ALSCAL program generated a series of two-dimensional graphs, plotting each of the combinations of dimensions (i.e., 1 with 2, 1 with 3, and 2 with 3), so I used SAS-GRAPH because it generated three-dimensional representations that present a clearer view of the relationships between the facets than can be provided by two dimensional plots. Figure 2.4 represents a plot in three-dimensional space of each of the twelve facet combinations. This plot creates a three-dimensional model in which the distances between each of the 12 facet combinations indicate their relationship to each other. Connecting those facet combination points that make up each of the three methods of social decentering (use of self, use of specific-other, and use of generalized-other) produces the three planes that define the spatial boundaries of each method. None of these planes overlap, which suggests that the instrument items assess different portions of the conceptual field of social decentering.

I also differentiated the items based on the cognitive – affective facet. Doing so created an axial division, with all the cognitive subscales on one side of the axis and all the affective subscales on the other. My imagination – experience facet did not emerge as clearly even though the imagination-based information items are clearly differentiated. In the three-dimensional model, the dimension 3 values (see Table 2.1) for the imagination facets tend to be further from the center than the experience facets with the most notable exceptions being the high value for ESC and low value for FGC. The values for this dimension approximate the pattern of concentric circles labeled a “circumplex” by facet theorists. An examination of the imagination items in the instrument provides one possible explanation for the failure to find a stronger differentiation for this facet. The items frequently asked respondents to assess their “experiences” at fantasizing or imagining, perhaps producing responses which confound imagination-based items with experience-based ones. Similarly, items tapping experience might depend on a certain level of imagination; for instance, one item asks about the respondents’ tendency to take into consideration the situation, culture, and ethnic background in their efforts to understand another’s behavior. Although this item is intended to assess the degree to which respondents draw on similar experiences, some imagination-based processing is probably required by respondents to consider such intercultural elements.

Figure 2.4: Three dimensional plot of social decentering subscales.

2.3.3Convergent Validity: Measures of Similar Phenomenon

The Social Decentering Scale should correlate with Mehrabian and Epstein’s (1972) Measure of Emotional Empathy, a widely used self-report of affective empathy. The correlation should be moderate since the Social Decentering Scale assesses more than the affective response that the Mehrabian and Epstein instrument taps. This also means the emotional empathy scale should have a stronger correlation with the affective subscale of the Social Decentering Scale than the cognitive subscale. Nonetheless, a significant but weaker relation still might be expected with the cognitive subscale because the emotional empathy measure has previously been found to indicate perspective-taking (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). Table 2.3 lists correlations between the Social Decentering Scale and several other scales. As Table 2.3 indicates, there is a moderate but significant correlation between the Measure of Emotional Empathy and the Social Decentering Scale. As predicted, the emotional empathy measure correlates more strongly with the affective subscale of the social decentering instrument than with the cognitive subscale (see Table 2.3).

Because role-taking represents the cognitive qualities reflected in social decentering, a moderate relation should also be found between the Social Decentering Scale and a measure of role-taking. Kelley, Phelps, and Simpson (cited in Chmielewski & Wolf, 1979) developed a multidimensional scale to measure three elements of role-taking: role projection, identification of thoughts and moods, and role flexibility. Chmielewski and Wolf examined this measure of role-taking and found supportive reliability for the overall instrument. But through factor analysis, they identified a different set of items and subscales than originally proposed. Thus, given the uncertainty of the subscales, I used only the overall scale in this convergent validation assessment. As predicted, this assessment found moderate but significant correlations between the Social Decentering Scale and the Role-Taking Ability Scale (see Table 2.3).

To provide a direct comparison to another multidimensional measure of other-centeredness, I correlated the Social Decentering Scale and its subscales with a multidimensional empathy scale, Davis’s (1980, 1983) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) and its four scales: fantasy, perspective-taking, empathic concern, and personal distress. Correlations were predicted between the Social Decentering Scale and the first three of Davis’s scales because both scales assess the process whereby we take on another’s perspective. However, only moderate correlations were expected because the Social Decentering Scale is broader in its conceptualization and Davis’s scale is more emotionally oriented. Davis’s fourth scale, personal distress, was designed to measure feelings of anxiety and uneasiness in interpersonal settings and this only minimally overlaps with the broader affective subscale of social decentering, so a weak relationship was expected. The results comparing the social decentering scales and IRI scales are presented in Table 2.3. One of the strongest distinctions that occurred was the difference in the correlations between the affective subscales and the personal distress scale (r = 0.34, p < 0.05), and the cognitive subscale and the personal distress scale (r = 0.05, not significant). This distinction demonstrates the discriminative strength of the affective and cognitive subscales of the Social Decentering Scale.

Table 2.3: Correlations of social decentering scale with other scales.

Note: ns = not significant at p < .05

In one study by Davis (1983), the fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress scales significantly related to a measure of emotionality whereas the perspective-taking scale did not. The three emotionally oriented scales should correlate more strongly with the affective subscale than with the cognitive subscale, and the reverse should be true for Davis’s perspective-taking scale. The results shown in Table 2.3 confirm these differences. Davis’s fantasy scale should relate more strongly to the imagination-based subscale than to the other social decentering subscales, but the results did not support that expectation. The fantasy scale related only slightly more to the imagination-based subscale than it did to the experience-based subscale. Although the personal distress scale was considerably weaker in its correlation with the imagination-based subscale than the other three IRI scales were, there was little difference between the correlations of the imagination-based subscale with the other three IRI scales. An examination of the items making up the relevant IRI scales provides some insight into why the differences were not greater. Davis’s fantasy scale appears to assess respondents’ ability to imagine the feelings and actions of fictitious characters in movies, books and plays, whereas the imagination-based subscale was designed to tap respondents’ abilities to imagine the feelings and thoughts of themselves, specific others and generalized others in a variety of situations.

2.3.4Construct Validity: Measures of Related Constructs

Wiemann and Backlund (1980) identify empathy as the most predominant dimension of communication competence, referring to empathy as both a cognitive and affective phenomenon. In this most general sense, empathy is similar to social decentering; therefore, social decentering should be expected to contribute to communication competence. A significant relation should be found between the Social Decentering Scale and measures of communication competence such as the one developed by Wiemann (1975, 1977). But I actually expected the relation between Wiemann’s instrument and the Social Decentering Scale to be small but significant because Wiemann’s scale includes a number of items designed to assess the additional dimensions of interaction management and social relaxation that are not directly related to social decentering. Wiemann’s measure focuses more on the cognitive and behavioral manifestations of communication competence in dyadic situations than on affect, so it was expected to be more related to the cognitive and use of specific-other subscales of the social decentering instrument than to their subscale counterparts. As Table 2.3 shows, the findings uphold these expectations.

Conversational sensitivity, a term coined by Daly, Vangelisti, and Daughton (1987), refers to a person’s ability to attend to and interpret a conversation. Several of the skills that contribute to conversational sensitivity also contribute to social decentering: ability to detect deeper and multiple meanings, capacity to remember what was said, being able to come up with alternatives suited for a given situation, and an ability to imagine conversations. Conversational sensitivity is a prerequisite for effective social decentering because such sensitivity is associated with attending to and interpreting information used in social decentering. I expected and found strong relationships between conversational sensitivity, social decentering, and all of the social decentering subscales (see Table 2.3). Swap and Rubin’s (1983) measure of interpersonal orientation, the product of research on bargaining and negotiation, was designed to assess how strongly a person has an interest in, reacts to, and takes personally another’s behavior. Social decentering requires that a person make sense of another and as such should – and was found to – relate moderately to interpersonal orientation (see Table 2.3).

2.3.5Predictive Validity

I conducted three specific predictive validity studies. In the first study, toward the end of a semester, five instructors of a basic speech communication course read a two-page description of the multidimensional theory of social decentering. They were then asked to assess (on a scale of 1–100) the level of social decentering that each of their students possessed. Students in one class of each of these instructors completed the social decentering instrument during the last week of the term (N = 92). If social decentering affects individuals’ behaviors as hypothesized, then instructors should be able to observe some variations in the levels of social decentering displayed by their students during the semester. Instructor ratings should therefore produce a significant correlation with students’ scores. Overall, instructor ratings did significantly correlate with student self-ratings (r = 0.29) although individual instructor correlations varied from a low of r = −0.05 to a high of r = 0.45 (p < 0.05, N = 15).

In the second study, students (N = 30) in an upper-level communication course completed the social decentering instrument. Several weeks later they were assigned the task of writing a paper about how they would react cognitively and affectively to a given hypothetical situation. The students were asked to write how they would feel, what they would think, how their best friend would feel, what that friend would think, and finally how people of their age and sex would feel and what they would think if confronted with the same situation. The participants’ papers were expected to reflect how well they used the various methods of social decentering, and their ability to produce affective and cognitive responses. Evaluations of the amount of social decentering reflected in their papers should correlate with their scores on the social decentering instrument. But the assigned paper did not lend itself well into differentiating between using experience-based information or using imagination-based information, with examples of the former being limited to student references to their own behaviors and the recollection of other people’s behaviors in similar situations.

Two communication faculty members were trained as coders. After carefully reading a discussion on the theory of social decentering, they were given a sample student paper to read and evaluate on the seven subscales and on the student’s overall ability to decenter. We discussed their ratings and then they evaluated a second sample paper. After discussing that paper, the coders proceeded to independently evaluate all thirty student papers. The interjudge correlation across the 30 papers for the combined evaluations on the seven subscales was r = 0.65 and r = 0.67 for the overall social decentering item. The two coders’ ratings were combined to produce ratings for each paper that was then compared to the students’ actual scores on the social decentering instrument. This comparison resulted in a correlation of r = 0.47 between the coders’ overall rating of social decentering and the students’ social decentering scores, and a correlation of r = 0.51 between the combined total of the coders’ seven subscale ratings and the students’ social decentering scores. The correlations between the coders’ and students’ scores for each of the seven subscales are as follows: experience-based information, r = 0.19 (ns); imagination-based information, r = 0.35 (ns); use of self, r = 0.47; use of specific-other, r = 0.42; use of generalized-other, r = 0.40; cognitive response, r = 0.14 (ns); and affective response, r = 0.56.

The third predictive validity study was based on the premise that individuals who score high on one of the three processing subscales of the social decentering instrument (use of self, use of specific-other, and use of generalized-other) should be able to correspondingly make more discriminations between: (1) themselves and others, (2) their best friend and others, and (3) between some specific category of people and others in general. I developed three forms, one to tap each processing subscale in a procedure similar to Crockett’s Role Construct Questionnaire. The forms asked the participants to write down qualities that distinguished: (1) themselves from most other people, (2) one of their best friends from other friends they have, and (3) a white American 80-year-old male from other people in general. Students in an upper level communication course first completed the social decentering instrument (N = 43; M =14; F = 29), and then two weeks later they completed the first two distinguishing forms. They were given five minutes to complete each form. They completed the form for distinguishing the general-other (white, 80-year-old male) a week later to minimize testing effects.

A trained coder and I independently counted the number of unique qualities generated by each participant for each form. The interrater correlation for each form was as follows: self, r = 0.98; best friend, r = 0.97; 80-year old male, r = 0.82. I combined the counts from both of us to form a score for the qualities associated with the self, best friend, and the 80-year-old male. I also combined all three of those scores to get the total number of qualities generated by each participant; overall interrater correlation for this combined total was 0.97. A comparison of the number of qualities identified by students with their scores on the corresponding social decentering subscales is shown in Table 2.4. The results provide some support for the predictive validity of the social decentering with small but significant relationships found for the use of specific-other and use of generalized-other. While the correlation for use of self is positive, the failure to find significance suggests that students generate qualities that distinguish them from other people regardless of their social decentering abilities. This finding also suggests that the use of self might be the most accessible process for people to use when considering another person’s dispositions.

Table 2.4: Results of Predictive Validity Study 3.

Number of Qualities for: Social Decentering Subscale Correlation
1)Themselves from most other people Use of Self 0.21 (N = 42)
2)One of their best friends from other friends Use of Specific-Other 0.28* (N = 42)
3)White American 80-year-old male from other people in general. Use of Generalized-Other 0.37* (N = 32)

* = significant at p < .05.

2.3.6Discriminant Validity

Theoretically, communication apprehension should not be related to social decentering. That is, a person’s level of oral communication anxiety should not be related to that person’s ability to process social information. But, communication apprehension is an appropriate concept to relate to social decentering because both have some impact on communication behavior, albeit for different reasons and with different impacts. McCroskey and Beatty’s (1986) Personal Report of Communication Apprehension-24 (PRCA-24) is designed to assess a person’s overall oral apprehension as well as a person’s apprehension in four communication contexts (group, meeting, dyadic, and public). No significant relation was expected between the social decentering instrument and the PRCA-24, and as expected, the Social Decentering Scale was not found to correlate significantly with the overall PRCA-24 (see Table 2.3).

2.3.7Validity Summary

As predicted, this multidimensional measure of social decentering related to measures of empathy, role-taking, communication competence, conversational sensitivity, and interpersonal orientation. Strong internal consistency was found for the overall instrument (alpha = 0.91). Each of the seven subscales had moderate to strong reliability. I conducted three studies that provide evidence of the predictive validity of the instrument. Discriminate validity was partially established by comparing social decentering to communication apprehension. Despite inherent weaknesses and uncertainties, self-report instruments do provide a starting point for investigating a phenomenon. Such instruments allow researchers to classify people according to the quality being assessed (e.g., empathic or interpersonally sensitive), and then the researchers can begin to systematically examine the relations between that quality and other variables.

The social decentering instrument provides a basis for assessing individual differences in social decentering. Those variations can be explored in social behavior, attribution, communication, responses to various communication contexts, and social cognition in general. Social decentering can be examined for its impact in interpersonal relationships, decision making, learning, conflict management, and persuasion. But such an examination has been hampered by the failure to recognize the presence of a multidimensional process and then to develop an instrument that was not unidimensionally bound. Results of my own studies in some of these areas are presented in the later chapters.

The multidimensional Social Decentering Scale that I have presented here overcomes many of the deficiencies associated with previous instruments and should prove valuable in examining social interaction. The items directly correspond to the theoretical model of social decentering, and each dimension of the model is assessed by several items. By being multidimensional then, each of the various combinations of interactions between the three dimensions of input, analysis, and response are equally weighted in the measure.

2.4Relationship-Specific Social Decentering (RSSD)

Some people are better than others at social decentering and the related skills of being empathic and perspective-taking. We might expect people who possess such other-oriented skills as these to be better able to effectively communicate and manage relationships and therefore would be more successful in their intimate relationships. But research results have failed to consistently demonstrate this effect. For example, several studies have found little to no relationship between such skills and marital satisfaction (Elliott, 1982; Sillars, Pike, Jones, & Murphy, 1984; Wachs & Cordova, 2007; Wastell, 1991). My own studies have failed to find a significant relationship between social decentering and satisfaction in intimate relationships. The failure to find the expected impact of other-oriented processes in intimate relationship is an indication of a more complex process happening in those relationships. These results led me to develop the following premise: in developing intimate relationships, people who lack general social-decentering skills can gain sufficient personal information about their partner to enable them to socially decenter with that particular partner. In other words, they develop a specific type of social decentering that is tailored to their intimate partner – relationship-specific social decentering (RSSD). As partners move toward intimacy and engage in self-disclosure, each partner provides a significant amount of information which creates the expectation that the other partner will retain and adapt to that information accordingly. As a result, a failure to develop social decentering with an intimate partner and adapt behavior accordingly is likely to produce negative responses from the partner and decrease the partner’s relational satisfaction.

The effects expected from socially decentering, empathizing, or perspective-taking with a particular partner should be even more likely with the use of RSSD. For example, the ability to be other centered has been identified as an element of communication and interpersonal competence (Allen & Brown, 1976; Rubin, Martin, Bruning, & Powers 1993; Spitzberg & Cupach 1984; Wiemann & Backlund, 1980); as such, RSSD can also be expected to contribute to interpersonal competence, at least within a given relationship. Individuals who can adopt an other-oriented perspective are considered more capable of effectively managing their relationships (Redmond, 1989) and attaining their interpersonal goals (Lakey & Canary, 2002). In similar fashion, RSSD should enhance people’s ability to manage specific close relationships and attain their interpersonal goals, albeit in selected relationships.

Research examining the impact of empathy or social decentering on interpersonal relationships has produced mixed results perhaps due to different conceptualizations and measurements of the concept. In a study of married couples, Wastell (1991) measured empathy according to each partner’s perception of the spouse (for example, “My partner senses or realizes what I’m feeling).” According to Wastall’s measurement, empathy did not predict reported marital happiness. In another study of married couples, Thomas, Fletcher, and Lange (1997) adapted Ickes, Stinson, Bissonnette, and Garcia’s (1990) method of measuring empathic accuracy. Thomas et al. measured empathic accuracy by having couples view a tape of themselves discussing a problem. After initially identifying their own thoughts, the spouses reviewed the tape and at specified points identified their own thoughts and those of their spouse. Empathic accuracy was then calculated on the basis of one spouse’s ability to predict the thoughts identified by the other at those specified times. As measured, empathic accuracy was unrelated to relational satisfaction. And in a longitudinal study of newlyweds, Kilpatrick, Bissonnette, and Rusbult (2002) found that empathic accuracy declined during the first three years of marriage and was related to dyadic adjustment only at six months but not at 18 months or 30 months.

Arriaga and Rusbult (1998) studied undergraduate romantic partners responses to an imagined accommodative dilemma attributed to their partner and found that the respondents’ general perspective-taking appreciably related neither to their accommodative behaviors nor to their level of commitment to their partner. And in a study I conducted (Redmond, 2002), I found that social decentering related to persuasive impact in less intimate relationships, but not in intimate ones. In another study (Redmond, 2002), I examined how similar partners were in their social decentering scores. Pairs of relational partners reported on their level of closeness and completed the Social Decentering Scale. Surprisingly, those partners in the closest relationship (the vast majority apparently romantic in nature) had the greatest amount of difference in social decentering scores while those in the least intimate relationships (casual friend and friends) had the most similarity of scores. The results suggest that for intimate relationships, partners form a complementary relationship where one partner’s strength in social decentering complements the other partner’s deficiency, while friends maintain relationships where they have similar social decentering abilities – a symmetrical relationship. One possibility for these findings is that in intimate relationships, when one partner makes adaptations as the result of social decentering, the other partner does not need to adapt. But another explanation might be that partners form a relationship-specific form of social decentering, which serves as a basis for both partners to consider and adapt to each other in spite of their differences in general social decentering.

2.4.1Foundations of RSSD

The ability to engage in social decentering, empathy, or perspective-taking is a general social cognitive trait that varies among individuals and provides a foundation for individuals to adapt to various interpersonal interactions. But some of the underlying processes involved in adopting an other-oriented perspective might reflect a state or situational condition (a quality bound by external conditions and in response to a specific circumstance) that depend on gaining information about a particular person, as in intimate relationships. The acquaintanceship effect in which empathic accuracy increases as the level of involvement and information-exchange increases (Colvin, Vogt, & Ickes, 1997; Stinson & Ickes, 1992), provides evidence of this state-like condition. And Ickes’s (1993) perspective that empathic accuracy requires a moment-by-moment awareness of another person’s internal state infers it. Thomas and Fletcher (1997) described empathic accuracy as the outcome of a process of cognitive and affective perspective-taking and empathy. In this way, empathic accuracy appears to be a relationship-specific form of being other centered. But empathic accuracy has been found between strangers, indicating that it is not solely a state or relationship specific. One reason for this finding might be that the measure of empathic accuracy does not differentiate exclusively between a general ability to predict the thoughts of a person and the ability to predict the thoughts of a particular partner. Cast (2004) has speculated that there are two types of role-taking accuracy, one occurs at the global level and is highly stable while the other is relationship specific and more changeable.

In their study on perspective-taking, Arriaga and Rusbult (1998) differentiated between general perspective-taking and partner perspective-taking. They operationalized both of these concepts using three perspective subscale items from Davis’s (1980, 1983) IRI which they adapted in creating three items for general perspective (e. g., “Before criticizing someone, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place”) and for three items to assess partner perspective-taking (e. g., “When I am upset or irritated at my partner, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his or her shoes.”). But that adaptation produced items more akin to the use of self method of social decentering than adapting to the specific relational partner’s perspective. In the example just provided regarding being upset or irritated, the focus is on the respondents’ own feelings if they were in their partners’ situation and not their perception of their partners’ actual feelings. Partner-specific assessment then should determine the degree to which individuals understand their particular partners’ perspective or feelings.

Long (1990) found that “no perspective-taking measures had been developed to assess perspective-taking within the context of a relationship” (p. 93), so he developed two scales: the Self Dyadic Perspective-Taking Scale (SDPT), which assesses how adequately one person perceives another person’s cognitive orientation or perspective, and the Other Dyadic Perspective-Taking Scale (ODPT), which assesses how individuals rate their partner’s perspective-taking skills. Long drew items for these scales from several other instruments, leaving out those items that assessed components of empathy as an emotional response and instead selecting items that assessed cognitive and intellectual understanding. As with Arriaga and Rusbult’s (1998) measure, some of the SDPT items focused on the individual’s own reactions (use of self) in their partner’s situation. Despite Long’s assertion that his scales did not address empathy, some items included statements that seem to assess emotional responses (e. g., “Before criticizing my partners, I try to imagine how I would feel in his/ her place.”) The strongest factor of the SDPT consists of items that focus on the attempt to understand and not on whether understanding is actually accomplished. In applying his dyadic measures to married couples, Long (1993) found that the general perspective-taking of females in high-adjustment relationships (M =18.88) was not significantly different from that of females in low-adjustment relationships (M =18.43); however, the general perspective-taking of males in high-adjustment relationships was significantly higher than that of males in low-adjustment relationships (M =17.14 vs. 15.15). But even though the means for women were not significantly different from each other, both were higher than that of the males in high- adjustment relationships. As found elsewhere, women generally score higher than men on measures of other-orientation, so it is not surprising that their scores were not linked to marital adjustment. Long did find, however, that both males and females in high-adjustment relationships had significantly higher dyadic (partner-specific) perspective-taking scores than both males and females in the low-adjustment relationships. That is, husbands and wives in high-adjustment relationships reported greater understanding of their spouses’ point of view than did husbands and wives in low- adjustment relationships. Since no cause and effect can be claimed, it is unclear whether low adjustment leads to a lack of understanding one another, or if a lack of understanding of one another leads to low adjustment.

Thomas, Fletcher, and Lange (1997) sought to explain why they had not found a relationship between empathic accuracy and the availability of marital partners’ behavioral cues. They speculated that partners might hold complex, local, relationship-specific lay theories about each other. As such, they contended that married partners’ insights about their spouse relied on detailed knowledge of the spouse’s personality, beliefs, feelings, or concerns surrounding a given issue. In addition, they suggested that “behaviors that mean nothing to an outside observer, such as a raised eyebrow or a vein throbbing in the forehead, may be pregnant with meaning to the partner because they are interpreted in light of local, relationship-specific lay theories and knowledge that are inaccessible to the observer” (p. 848).

An example of how relationship-specific orientation affects adaptation to a partner is found in a study on chronic insecurity by Lemay and Dudley (2011). They studied how people responded to romantic partners who were perceived as chronically insecure and found a variety of behaviors that reflect a partner-specific orientation:

Vigilant perceivers appeared especially adept at detecting daily fluctuations in targets’ feelings of insecurity, and they had especially good memories of targets’ recent feelings of insecurity. These findings suggest that perceivers’ vigilance tunes their cognitive systems to enhance processing of cues relevant to targets’ insecurity. (p. 697)

Lemay and Dudley found that vigilant partners exaggerated affection toward their partners when they perceived a crisis, as well as after the crisis, when they remembered the insecurity that their partner experienced the day before. That is, the belief that their partner was chronically insecure led vigilant partners to use exaggerated affection as a strategy to avoid triggering insecurity or to dispel the threat.

2.4.2A Theory of RSSD

The overarching principle embodied in this addition to the original social decentering theory is that regardless of general social-decentering ability, a person’s understanding and ability to adapt to a specific partner generally increases as that relationship moves toward greater intimacy. In other words, people with weaker social- decentering skills are, nonetheless, able to socially decenter within the context of their specific intimate relationships. The resulting understanding serves as a framework for adaptation to a partner as well as creating an expectation in the partner for adaptation by the decenter. Finkenauer and Righetti (2011) see understanding one’s partner and responsiveness as essential to close relationships. They contend that people “want to know and understand other’s motivations and intentions, because it helps them explain others’ behavior in the past, present and future” (p. 317). They note that people want their partners to be responsive by demonstrating that understanding. RSSD is the product of that understanding and the foundation for responsiveness.

Self-disclosure is one of the primary means by which partners gain information about each other and develop RSSD. Altman and Taylor (1973) see relational development as a process by which the move toward intimacy is connected to the breadth and depth of self-disclosure. The disclosure of more information and more intimate information leads to the development of more complex and complete RSSD. But RSSD doesn’t derive just from self-disclosures, Colvin et al. (1997) describe the process for creating knowledge structures of partners that explains another manner in which RSSD develops. Colvin et al. wrote that partners “(1) experience common situations and events, (2) observe each other’s behavior across these various situations and events, and (3) discuss the thoughts and feelings that occurred to each of them before, during, and after these events took place” (p. 189). The resulting knowledge structures are another element that contributes to RSSD. Implicit in these steps however is the need for a variety of other skills such as the ability to accurately perceive others and the necessary communication skills to discuss thoughts and feelings related to what was observed. The lack of such skills undermines the development of accurate knowledge structures and therefore undermines the development of RSSD. Thomas and Fletcher (2003) incorporated Ickes’ empathic accuracy method as their measure of mindreading between dating couples, friends, and strangers. The higher accuracy found between dating couples was attributed to the fact that while the couple, friends, and strangers, each saw the same behavioral data while watching a video replay of an earlier discussion by the dating couple, dating couples were able to draw from “unique and detailed local relationship theories forged over a history of intimate interactions with their dating partner” (p. 1090). RSSD is essentially the combination of these local relationship theories that develop as couples moved toward intimacy.

Intimacy is often defined by the level of knowledge that people have of their partners; to reach the highest levels of intimacy in their relationship, partners must acquire an extensive amount of knowledge about each other. In formulating their intimacy process model, Reis and Shaver (1988) identified having an understanding of your partner as a quality necessary for intimacy, defining understanding as “A’s belief that B accurately perceives A’s needs, constructs, feelings, self-definition, and life predicaments” (p. 380). Such an understanding is the foundation on which RSSD develops in intimate relationships. But just because individuals have extensive knowledge about their partner does not automatically mean that their relationship is intimate; for example, couples in counseling and divorced couples have high- information, low-intimacy relationships.

Rowan, Compton, and Rust (1995) sought to explain the lack of a significant correlation between women’s marital satisfaction and empathy scores in their study of married couples. They speculated that the reason for this lack of correlation was because married women might reach a ceiling whereby further increases in their empathy fail to produce corresponding increases in their satisfaction. Therefore, rather than expecting a linear correlation between intimacy and the development or accuracy of RSSD, there is probably an upper threshold at which an increase in knowledge does not create a corresponding increase in RSSD.

Strong social decenterers should more readily develop RSSD and thus move more readily toward intimacy than would weaker social decenterers. That assumption is supported by Arriaga and Rusbult’s (1998) finding of a significant correlation (r = 0.58, p < 0.01) between their measures of general perspective-taking and partner- specific perspective-taking. But because of the interdependent nature of relationships, the rate of a couple’s relationship escalation is probably tied to whichever partner is slower in acquiring RSSD. Thus, in a relationship composed of a strong and weak social decenterer, their progress toward intimacy is moderated by the rate by which the weaker social decenterer acquires information and adapts his or her behaviors to the partner. Thus, RSSD needs to be considered as both an individual quality and a quality of the dyad.

The development of mutual RSSD might be a prerequisite to reaching the highest levels of intimacy in a relationship. Finkenauer and Righetti (2011) indicated that feeling understood by a responsive partner showed that the other partner was committed to the relationship, supportive of the other’s needs, and provided validation and acceptance of core elements of the other. As couples get to know each other, partners expect each other to adapt their behaviors to what they have learned – inherently expecting their partner to develop and apply RSSD. In essence then, the escalation of a relationship should directly correlate with the partners’ increased RSSD abilities. Once a relationship reaches intimacy, we generally expect continued adaptation by our partners. Failure to demonstrate increasing partner-specific adaptation as the relationship escalates is likely to inhibit movement toward intimacy, increase a partner’s relational dissatisfaction, and possibly evoke de-escalation and even termination of the relationship. But some individuals might accept their partner’s lack of adaptation if, for example, the individuals have low self-esteem, are highly dependent, or have little need for confirmation from that partner. In addition, couples can develop scripts, rituals, or patterns of behavior that they use to more efficiently negotiate their daily interactions. While they might use RSSD to develop their scripts, once established, they no longer need to decenter each time they interact. If the script or routine is positive, its continued use will probably be effective and help maintain the relationship. But if the routine is negative, its continued use will likely have a debilitating effect; for example, the creation of demand-withdraw patterns in response to complaints or conflicts in relationships.

Other-centered processes have been linked to the performance of positive relational behaviors (Cast, 2004), providing additional support for the linking of RSSD with relational satisfaction. Adaptation confirms the value of another person. People’s willingness to adapt to their partners conveys support and commitment to their partners. This claim is supported by studies finding that the presence of empathy or perspective-taking is associated with the enactment of positive relational behaviors. For example, Franzoi, Davis, and Young (1985) found that in the heterosexual couples they surveyed, the more that men used male perspective-taking, the more the couple reported using give and take to handle conflict; however, the women’s use of perspective-taking was not significantly related. Kilpatrick et al. (2002) found that self-reports of accommodation related to empathic accuracy in married couples, with empathically accurate wives more likely to accommodate to their husbands than were husbands to accommodate to their wives. But in a study of role-taking in married couples, Cast (2004) found that wives reported greater role-taking accuracy than did their husbands but were less likely to behave supportively. Arriaga and Rusbult (1998) reported that partner perspective-taking correlated with reports of positive emotional reactions, relationship enhancing attributions, and constructive preferences. On the other hand, Thomas, Fletcher, and Lange (1997) did not find a significant correlation between married couples’ empathic accuracy and positive verbal behaviors, self-reports of satisfaction (either for the self or spouse), or depression. Are individuals who lack other-oriented skills doomed to a life of unsatisfactory and failed intimate relationships? While possessing such skills might increase people’s overall effectiveness and efficiency in managing their relationships, their ability to develop RSSD provides one way that they can have relational success even if they lack general interpersonal skills.

The development of RSSD signals a growing intimacy in a relationship. By acquiring, retaining, and using information to adapt to their partners, people convey their relational involvement and commitment; conversely, people who fail to retain and use information from their partners convey a lack of relational involvement and commitment. That is, when people engage in adaptive behavior that reflects an understanding of their partners, people convey their willingness to exert effort and incur a cost for their partner’s benefit, thus signaling that they feel the relationship is important. We generally do not put ourselves out for people we do not care about, and we realize that we can increase the effectiveness of our efforts the more we understand our partners and engage in RSSD. But the impact that adaptation has on our partners depends on whether our partners see these behaviors as relevant and helpful (Reis & Shaver, 1988).

2.4.3Caveats of RSSD

So far this discussion of RSSD has probably created the impression that all individuals develop this skill as their relationships move toward intimacy. But that is an overgeneralization, and there are several factors that limit or prevent RSSD’s development. As with general social decentering, RSSD depends on several factors: being motivated to develop RSSD; being motivated to apply RSSD; acquiring sufficient information (through observation, partner self-disclosure, asking questions, and effectively listening); retaining and utilizing the information; recognizing the nuances of a given situation that call for its use; and willingness of the partner to self-disclose.

Developing RSSD takes time and effort; therefore, the decision to develop it depends on the perceived costs and benefits associated with doing so. For this reason, the level of effort people put into developing RSSD correlates with the level of intimacy and commitment to their partner. Individuals are less likely to work on developing RSSD when they perceive their relationships as having little value or lacking the potential for value. But RSSD might occur even when there isn’t intimacy if the relationship is perceived as having value or if the benefits of developing RSSD outweigh the costs. For example, employees might be motivated to develop RSSD with their manager as a tactic for successfully managing the manager. Such a situation creates an intriguing interpersonal circumstance in which decenterers need to gain more information about a target with whom they may not have a particular strong or positive relationship.

Even if they have established RSSD, people might not be motivated to apply it if, as with general social decentering, they do not want to invest the required time and effort. One reason people probably employ scripts and routines rather than constantly decentering and adapting is because such routines are easier and save time. As with general social decentering, RSSD may be activated when scripts or routines fail, and a person wants to understand why. The advantage of RSSD over social decentering is that with RSSD, people have more in-depth information about their partners to draw from, which should result in more accurate and successful adaptation, assuming that they have the necessary motivation and skills to enact whatever strategies they develop. Individuals’ lack of motivation to engage in RSSD can have negative effects on their relationships and might reflect their acquiescence to its de-escalation or termination.

Developing a base for RSSD requires pre-requisite skills in listening, observing, analyzing, retaining, recalling, and analyzing information. Weaknesses in any of these areas undermine the completeness and effectiveness of RSSD. For example, people who do not listen well and have not acquired specific information about their partners will not be able to effectively develop RSSD.

In addition to managing information about their partner, individuals need to manage information about the given situation – to recognize the impact of a given situation on their specific partner. Failure to do so can occur because they lack information about the situation, fail to consider the nuances of the situation, or fail to connect the situation to their knowledge about their partner. Responding to a close friend who has been fired is difficult without knowing the reasons behind the firing. While it is possible to provide general comfort and support, the response might be quite different if the reason for the firing was that the friend stole money. At a social gathering of coworkers and their spouses, after someone shares a funny story about getting stranded at an airport, a wife suggests that her husband should tell the story about how he once got stuck on an elevator for three hours. He declines and later expresses his dismay over her suggestion because he felt the story was embarrassing and would have make him look bad to his coworkers and boss. The wife had failed to recognize that even though it was a social situation, her husband was still concerned about his work image. Connecting information about a given partner to a given situation then, requires skill at synthesizing diverse information.

Since RSSD depends upon acquiring information from a partner, it can be undermined by a partner who is reluctant to share personal information (Rosenblatt & Wieling, 2013). Limiting self-disclosure can be used as a strategy for preventing the escalation of a relationship (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2017), as when someone is uncertain about the relationship or because of commitment issues. Partners might withhold information that they worry will be viewed negatively, or that makes them vulnerable. Sometimes information is not shared or lies are told in order to prevent harming the relationship or the partner (Rosenblatt & Wieling, 2013). Besides limiting self-disclosures, people might choose to limit their partners from meeting or interacting with their family and friends, again restricting the ability to gain insight and understanding of the partner’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors from these sources. For example, if the partner comes from a dysfunctional family, the opportunity to interact and observe that family can help in developing a sensitivity about how such factors affect the partner. Lower scores on a measure of RSSD might be the result of a partner withholding personal information rather than inadequate skills on the part of the decenterer.

People’s ability to use RSSD is also limited by their egocentrism, self-absorption, and even narcissism. When people fail to recognize the concerns of others, they are inherently unable to employ other-oriented processes such as RSSD. Egocentrism has been studied primarily in terms of child development, and these studies have found that increases in people’s concern for others correspond to getting older. Since much of the egocentrism research relates primarily to visual and spatial tasks, such a finding makes sense. But from a cognitive perspective, egocentrism is reflected in an individual’s general inclination to think primarily of themselves (their values, perspectives, thoughts, and feelings) to the detriment of their being sensitive to the disposition of others. Murray, Holmes, Bellavia, Griffin, and Dolderman (2002) found that married individuals acted egocentrically toward their partners by projecting their values, day-to-day feelings, and traits onto their partner. Egocentrism was measured as the degree to which projections of self-qualities on the partner differed from those actually reported by the partner. They found that greater egocentrism was related to greater relational satisfaction and less conflict. In other words, egocentrism led to the perception of greater similarity with the partner, with such similarity perhaps influencing satisfaction. In both married and dating couples, Murray et al. also found that feeling understood increased satisfaction, which suggests that the perception of a partner’s RSSD should also relate to greater relational satisfaction. In addition, simply perceiving similarity led participants to feel understood by their partners. The results of this study raise questions about the impact of the actual understanding one’s partner on various relational outcomes. Thus, a measure of RSSD as an independently occurring phenomenon will be useful in studying the relationship of such variables as perceived understanding, actual understanding, egocentrism, relational satisfaction, and conflict.

2.4.4Measurement of RSSD

The measure of RSSD is an extension of the measure of social decentering that I described earlier. The RSSD Scale is a modification of the subscale for assessing the use of specific-other in the social decentering measure. As such, the items are again multidimensional, each containing a reference to either experience- or imagination-based information, to the use of self, other, or generalized-other and finally to a cognitive or affective response. The 12 items from the use of specific-other subscale were modified as were the instructions for the RSSD Scale. While the use of specific-other subscale in the social decentering measure does ask respondents to “think about a close friend,” the questions do not require them to think about the same specific-other person when responding to each question. In that way, a sample is taken of how they respond to specific others in general. For the RSSD Scale, the items and instructions ask the respondents to focus on one specific partner. For example, in a study examining escalating and de-escalating mixed-sex relationships, both partners were present while completing the RSSD Scale and instructed to complete the items in regard to the partner that was with them. In a study examining marital communication, the instructions and 12 items directed participants to respond relative to their spouse.

Since the use of specific-other subscale has some items directing respondents to think of a particular person, questions arise about whether the RSSD Scale will actually be discriminating and if the RSSD Scale assesses different cognitive processes than does the use of specific-other subscale as claimed. In the study of escalating mixed-sex relationships, the RSSD Scale and specific-other subscale had a moderate correlation of r = 0.40 (p < .001, n = 172). The RSSD Scale’s correlation with the overall Social Decentering Scale was 0.46 (p < .001), which is also moderate but is considerably less than the specific-other scale’s strong correlation with the overall decentering scale of 0.82 (p < .001). These moderate relationships that account for 16% and 21% of the shared variance between the RSSD Scale and the other two scales, respectively, seem reasonable given that all three scales share the same three dimensions and focus on taking into account other people’s dispositions. But the fact that 84% of the variance in the RSSD Scale is not shared with the use of specific-other subscale provides support for RSSD being a discreet variable. Similar results were found with the married couple sample though the correlations were stronger between the RSSD Scale and use of specific-other subscale (r = 0.56, p < .001, n = 202) and between the RSSD Scale and the overall decentering measure (r = 0.54, p < 0.001). These are still considerably less than the correlation of 0.90 found between the overall measure and the use of specific-other subscale.

Reliability of the RSSD Scale was good, producing a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.87 (n = 172) from the sample of escalating mixed-sex couples, and 0.79 (n = 197) for the married couples sample. I will present further detail on how this measure relates to additional concepts such as relational satisfaction, relational assessment, and intimacy in the chapters on interpersonal relationships and marital relationships.

2.5A Preview of the Impact of Social Decentering on Social Interactions and Interpersonal Relationships

The remainder of this book details the impact of social decentering on all aspects of our lives, especially on our interpersonal relationships. Social decentering provides us with an invaluable understanding of those with whom we are closest and have the greatest amount of personal information. Our use of social decentering affects our development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Fortunately, weakness in social decentering does not prevent people from developing interpersonal relationships. Later in the book, I present evidence showing that social decentering can exist as a complementary relational skill in which one member is a high social decenterer and the other is a low one. High social decenterers are more likely to understand and adapt to their partners lack of social decentering. But even in these complementary relationships there are limits to partners’ willingness to accommodate. Social decentering is simply another tool we can use to achieve and manage our social and personal goals but does not insure either happy or successful relationships.

The immediacy of interpersonal interactions limits the depth of social decentering, but does not negate its impact entirely. Individuals do adapt their immediate reactions to their partners. By socially decentering, speakers consider their listeners’ knowledge and perspectives and adapt the examples and information that they provide. They might elect to withhold information because they predict that it will have a negative impact on their listeners. Failure to apply social decentering can have negative consequences as people make insensitive statements to their partners; statements the person “should have known better” not to say. Failure to adapt can result in hurt feelings, the deterioration or end the interaction, and even damage the relationship.

Social decentering applies to our relationships with family, friends, spouses, and coworkers. I discuss the impact of social decentering on manager-subordinate relationships in detail later, but suffice it to say, the impact can be both positive and negative. Although social decentering can help managers effectively adapt messages to employees and build positive working relationships, it can also undermine objective decision making when their decisions become focused on the welfare of a given employee over that of the organization.

Within a marriage, spousal social decentering interacts with a variety of other variables to affect marital satisfaction. In the most intimate relationships, people expect their partners to understand them and display that understanding through their sensitivity and appropriately adapted behavior. Failure to show such sensitivity is likely to erode relational satisfaction. Even those spouses with weak social decentering skills are expected to develop RSSD. Such RSSD develops because of the amount of disclosure and interaction that occurs within intimate relationships. Because intimate partners come to know each other extremely well, they develop certain expectations regarding that mutual knowledge. But just because spouses develop strong RSSD does not mean that their marriage will be successful or satisfying. Factors such as shared decision making, fidelity, equity, role fulfillment, and communication quality, all impact the quality of a marriage. The role in marriage of other-oriented phenomena, such as social decentering, is more complex than most people imagine.

Taking into consideration another person’s dispositions through social decentering provides insight that we might not otherwise garner, helping us to accomplish our personal and social goals. Social decentering also makes us susceptible to feelings and thoughts we would not have otherwise experienced. We are vulnerable to manipulation by others who exploit our other-orientation. People might provide false information that undermines our ability to accurately analyze information about them thus leading to responses that favor the manipulators. In addition to false or incomplete information, a variety of perceptual and conceptual biases discussed in Chapter 1 also affect the accuracy of the process. Nonetheless, the ability to consider another person’s thoughts, feelings, perspectives and other dispositions is a powerful cognitive tool that allows us to connect with other people on an almost magical level.


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