Shared Experiences Don’t Always Lead to Better Understanding

“Me too” are two powerful words that express solidarity with others, but new research finds that sharing a past similar experience might hinder your ability to understand what the other person is really going through.

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“Try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” 

This age-old advice encourages us to consider and understand another person’s perspective and experience. Having been in someone else’s shoes can trigger a rush of empathy and may prompt us to take action by offering compassion or advice to someone in need. We often feel we can better support a loved one through hardship when we have also been through similar challenges.

In the scientific literature, the ability to accurately assess how others are thinking or feeling is called “accurate interpersonal understanding,” and past research suggests that experience similarity can increase a person’s level of understanding and might even improve relationships.

“When we interact with other people in a social situation, feeling understood and understanding other people is so crucial to the quality of the interaction and to our well-being,” says Yoona Kang, Research Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Similarity and Understanding

When Kang and colleagues set out to explore what would help people to understand another person more (or less) accurately, what they found was surprising. Having a past similar life experience didn’t lead to better…