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Hunter Gehlbach

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Home > Teaching and Curriculum > Social perspective taking: A multidimensional approach

Social perspective taking:
A multidimensional approach
HGSE Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach

Understanding the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of other people – social perspective taking – plays an important role in the classroom experience. It supports the development of social skills and academic learning. Previous research on social perspective taking has focused on either ability or motivation to take on board another person's perspective. According to HGSE assistant professor Hunter Gehlbach, a more realistic approach combines ability and motivation with other factors such as the classroom environment.

After years of work with students and teachers, Gehlbach is extending his research to examine the ways "experts" – such as trial lawyers and police detectives – carry out perspective taking. In an exclusive feature, Gehlbach invites Usable Knowledge readers to test their own perspective taking abilities.

While it is widely accepted that understanding the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others – or social perspective taking – is crucial to successful relationships, researchers have found that it also plays an important role in the classroom. "One of the findings from my research," explains HGSE assistant professor Hunter Gehlbach, "is that the students who get higher grades also tend to be more motivated and more accurate in their perspective taking."

Social perspective taking can influence many elements of the academic experience. When making a lesson plan, a teacher needs to be able to select topics that will interest and engage a particular group of students. Teachers also need to be able to read their students' gestures and facial expressions in order to determine whether or not they are engaging with, or understanding, the material. For students, the ability to read the social cues of their peers is a crucial component of any group activity.

Furthermore, understanding other peoples and cultures is a fundamental component of literature, foreign languages, history, social studies, and virtually all the other social science disciplines. If students are encouraged to consider what it was like for Native Americans to see white people for the first time, or for the Pilgrims to leave their ships and set foot on American soil, they will gain much clearer insight into the motivations behind historical events. This is also an important step towards understanding what it means to be raised in a different social environment with different cultural values.

Ability and motivation

Gehlbach first became interested in social perspective taking as a tenth grade social studies teacher. According to Gehlbach's work, the fact that students interact with each other more regularly and have more in common with each other than they do with historical figures should mean that they are more proficient at taking each other's perspectives. However, while many of his students were highly adept at adopting the perspective of historical figures, Gehlbach observed that the same students sometimes found it strikingly difficult to understand the perspective of another student, especially when resolving conflicts among themselves. "By taking a classmate's perspective they stand to lose something, so it might be harder for them to do that than to relate to a historical figure. This is a bit counterintuitive" says Gehlbach. "That's where it is important to think about motivation as well as ability. You really have to have both for social perspective taking to be useful."

Taking a multidimensional approach

Although many research projects have looked at ability, and others have investigated motivation, very few studies have examined both people's ability to engage in social perspective taking and their motivation or propensity to do so – what Gehlbach describes as a multidimensional approach. "Very few people are trying to look at both at the same time," says Gehlbach. "But that's what is needed in the real world."

In the real world, according to Gehlbach, social perspective taking depends on ability and motivation, but also on the context in which someone is trying to take another person's perspective. For example, a social studies student who is trying to understand Napoleon's actions will be influenced by a number of factors. Is the subject interesting to the student? Is the student pressured to prepare for a test? Is this student being distracted by friends? Each of these environmental factors will influence the student's motivation and ability.

Strategies in perspective taking

In his latest research, Gehlbach is taking a closer look at the strategies people use to interpret the behavior of others. Using interviews, surveys, and videotapes of interactions, he is examining the strategies used by novice perspective takers, as well as by expert perspective takers, such as detectives, actors, and trial lawyers.

According to Gehlbach, very little is known about how perspective taking happens and how effective different strategies are. "One strategy that people often use," he explains, "is to put themselves in someone else's shoes. But this could be a really bad strategy. If I'm very different from you and I project my background and my personal history into your situation, there's a pretty good chance I would think something different from you."

Try it yourself!

Gehlbach and HGSE doctoral students Maureen Brinkworth, Ming-Te Wang, and Christopher Wynne have developed a test to measure perspective taking ability – and they invite you to try it. Watch this video of a conversation between Gehlbach and Brinkworth, and then answer the short list of yes-or-no questions below. Then click the submit button, and find out how skillfully you can recognize the feelings that underlie other people's words, gestures, and expressions.

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Taking social perspectives into the classroom

How can teachers encourage students to develop effective social perspective taking skills? "I think that what we ought to be doing is asking lots more open-ended questions that get students to think through multiple points of view," says Gehlbach.

Most of all, Gehlbach recommends that students become more motivated to seek out multiple viewpoints. "Teachers could have students bring in newspaper articles that present two points of view or that ignore a big point of view. Ask students for multiple right answers. Help them to develop a disposition that says, 'Okay, I know what my point of view is, but is this how other people are thinking?' I don't think social perspective taking is something which is currently rewarded in schools," reflects Gehlbach. "It's not punished, but it is kind of ignored."

By Ruth E. C. Prince

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College