Visualizing Yourself: How to Make Difficult Decisions

Picture yourself driving your car. You are in the grocery store parking lot and in a bit of a hurry. You are backing out of the parking spot and suddenly you hit the car parked behind you. Looking around, you notice that no one is in the car and no one witnessed you hitting the car. What do you do? No one saw, it’s just a little scratch, and you are in a hurry so driving away and leaving would not be the worse thing ever. However, it also would not take much time to get out, write a quick note, and deal with the details later.

In this experiment, J. Agerström et. al look at situations like these, where one must make a morally complicated situation. They examine whether visualizing a situation in the first-person versus the third-person will help one make a morally just decision.

People tend to view events that directly affect them in the first-person; however, when picturing past events, one will usually visualize it in the third-person. One might do this in order to construe that specific event with more abstract terms. By viewing a situation in broader terms, it should render a person to construe actions that lead to more ideal self. Now, go back to the example above about hitting another car. It would be easy to think in the moment that no one saw you, so it is not a big deal to just drive away. However, if you imagined yourself conducting this action, you should express a higher moral concern. In J. Agerström et. al experiment, they observe how the visual perspective using first and third person affects one’s moral judgment of a situation.

In J. Agerström et. al first experiment, the participants imagined a scenario in which they had to chose to either hire a friend or competent candidate. They were randomly assigned to either visualize this event in the first-person or the third-person. Once they had visualized this activity, they were asked to then judge how “wrong they thought it was to hire their friend instead of the more qualified candidate.” The scale was from one to six– one being not wrong at all and six being very wrong. Afterwards, they rated how well they were able to visualize the scenario on a scale from one to nine – one being poorly and nine being extremely well.

In the results, the experimenters found that if the participant visualized the event in the third-person, they would have harsher moral judgments. Thus, suggesting that using a third-person perspective better allows the participant to see the wrong in moral decisions.

In experiment two, instead of looking at the effect of visual perspective on moral judgments, the observers looked at how the visual perspective influenced the participants. The participants were asked to envision themselves, in either the first or third person, dumping trash instead of recycling it because the weather was bad. The participants were then asked whether they thought ‘throwing away trash in a sloppy matter’ better represented the action or if ‘lacking respect for the environment’ was better. The first action, a low-level description, refers to how the action is done and the second action, a high-level description, refers to why. After choosing one of these rates, the participants then rated the severity of their action on a scale of one to nine– one being not severe and nine being extremely severe.

The results of experiment 2 were similar to the first in that those who imagined themselves in the third-person construed the event in high-level terms rather than low-level as well as judged the event (not recycling) as more severe.

Therefore, if you were to back into someone’s car, or found yourself in any morally challenging situation, picture yourself actually committing that action. Based on the conclusions of this study, if you did this, then you have a higher chance of harshly judging yourself, and therefore would be more likely to make the better decision.


Agerström, J., Björklund, F., & Carlsson, R. (2013). Look at yourself! Visual perspective influences moral judgment by level of mental construal. Social Psychology, 44(1), 42-46. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000100

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