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A Closer Look at Social Perspective Taking

Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach's research yields clues on what motivates individuals to take the perspective of others
associate professor Hunter Gehlbach

A keen interest in humans’ distinctive capacity to decipher the thoughts and feelings of others — a capacity known as social perspective taking (SPT) — has driven the research of Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach for the better part of a decade.

“Psychologists believe that our ability to read others supports one of our primary drives as human beings, the drive to relate to others and form social bonds,” says Gehlbach, an educational psychologist who is looking at ways to improve teaching and learning by enhancing SPT in the classroom.

In addition to suggesting that students who are more motivated and accurate in their social perspective taking also tend to get higher grades, Gehlbach’s research has outlined ways in which SPT is critical for a variety of stakeholders in education.

“Principals constantly need to read and respond to the needs of students, parents, and teachers and resolve issues in ways that are effective and equitable,” Gehlbach says. “Teachers have to figure out each day whether that student in the third row understands what’s being taught, and students need to be accurate in their assessment of teachers’ expectations and the perspectives of their classmates.”

The last point is especially important, notes Gehlbach, in an era when globalization has made it much more likely that students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds will be learning together. “We need to help students comprehend their classmates’ values, perspectives, and motivations so they can learn from each other as well as from their teachers.”

We need to help students comprehend their classmates’ values, perspectives, and motivations so they can learn from each other as well as from their teachers.

To develop ways to help students and teachers hone their perspective-taking, Gehlbach decided it was necessary first to more fully understand the underlying process. In research due to be published early next year, Gehlbach, doctoral student Maureen Brinkworth, Ed.M.’06, and Ming-Te Wang, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’10,  looked closely at how SPT actually happens. The study yielded some important clues about what motivates individuals to take the perspectives of others, the strategies used by “expert” perspective takers, and the sources of evidence that inform perspective takers’ conclusions.

Choosing to Empathize

What motivates us to take the perspectives of others? “We are exposed to dozens of people every day — in the grocery check-out line, during our commute to work or school, or sitting in a restaurant — yet we are very selective about those with whom we empathize,” Gehlbach says. To uncover motivational factors in SPT, Gehlbach and his colleagues compared two groups of participants: a sample of 18 adults from professions such as teaching, psychotherapy, and military intelligence, who were identified by peers as experts at social perspective taking; and a group of 13 high school students nominated by their teachers and administrators and chosen because of their apparent struggles with SPT.

All participants completed a survey, viewed a video, and answered related questions during in-depth interviews designed to uncover triggers and barriers to SPT. One key finding was that if a person or situation is important to us, we are much more likely to engage in SPT. “For example,” Gehlbach explains, “a border crossing guard who is trying to identify someone who might be a threat, or [a] detective questioning a high-stakes suspect, is very motivated to take that person’s perspective to try to figure out what they might be thinking.”

In less dramatic circumstances, a high-stakes person might be a family member, teacher, or student whose opinions and actions matter to us. “Students who want to do well in school have a high interest in teachers’ expectations, and adolescents, in general, are very interested in how they are viewed by their peers,” he says. “It’s how we develop a sense of ourselves during a critical time in our lives.”

A more unexpected finding, says Gehlbach, is the extent to which the role individuals take on in a given situation determines whether or not they engage in SPT. “One member of the Army that we interviewed was highly motivated to engage in SPT when he was in his role as an interrogator.  However, when he was in his role as the disciplinarian of his unit, he was completely uninterested in the perspective of soldiers who had broken rules,” says Gelbach.  “A teacher who views his or her job as solely to deliver content might not try to figure out what’s going on with a student who pays attention on Monday but acts out on Wednesday.

“That kind of teacher might see perspective taking as the job of a school counselor,” continues Gehlbach, “but what is interesting to consider, especially for those of us who want to enhance SPT in educational settings, is the possibility that one’s role can be changed.”

If teachers who focus primarily on delivering content can be convinced that having a better understanding of their students’ perspectives will increase their success, Gehlbach says, “they may shift their strategy to include a greater emphasis on SPT.”

Strategies and Cues

When it comes to strategies that facilitate social perspective taking, the old standby of putting oneself in another’s shoes is commonly used, but it is by no means foolproof. “That can be risky,” Gehlbach says, “because you can impose your personal values and background on someone who might not share those at all.”

A more sophisticated strategy that emerged in the study was the practice of delaying judgments about others until ample information is available. “This was a technique the counseling psychologists often used,” Gehlbach relates, “along with volunteering information about themselves in order to draw out the perceptions of their clients.”

In looking at the sources of evidence used to discern the thoughts and feelings of others, in-depth interviews with participants revealed 12 different cues, including facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and postures.

“One data point that was a little less intuitive,” Gehlbach says, “was the lack of expected reactions.” In one of the videos used in the study, when a joke was told and did not elicit laughter, viewers concluded that the person listening didn’t understand what was going on. “They began to read something into that,” he says. “It seems that unexpected responses are a pretty strong cue in social perspective taking.”

Triggers and Barriers

Gehlbach’s soon-to-be-published research offers numerous insights on the triggers and barriers that influence social perspective taking in the classroom. “Cognitive load is one frequently cited example of a barrier,” he relates. “If a teacher is focused on taking attendance, starting a lesson, catching up a student who was absent yesterday, and scheduling a principal’s observation, taking the perspective of 25 students in a given class is very difficult.” On the other hand, Gehlbach says relationship goals, “such as when a student engages with a new classmate to get to know him or her better,” promote SPT and could be used to facilitate peer learning in the classroom.

One of the biggest surprises in the study was the extent to which the “expert” participants and the student SPT novices fared similarly across a spectrum of measures. “I think that’s indicative of the complexity of the process,” Gehlbach comments. “Even those who struggle with SPT strategies and skills can go a long way just on motivation. It’s a great platform to build on as we begin to develop approaches to teach SPT in school settings."

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