Understanding the 'Social Perspective' of Others

November 09, 2011

A psychology professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education has spent the last ten years exploring the capacity of humans to grasp, discern and perhaps decipher the feelings and thoughts of other people.  Dr Hunter Gehlbach has been exploring this human ability to help teachers improve teaching and learning. He calls it 'Social Perspective Taking' (SPT). At one level, Gehlbach is simply concerned with how he can assist teachers to identify when students aren't motivated, distracted, unhappy and so on, with the goal being to enhance their engagement and learning. But this ability to discern the feelings and thoughts of another has even greater potential. In an interview that is reported in an article written by Deborah Blagg, Dr Gehlbach suggests that there are implications for a variety of people in education; for example, students, teachers administrators etc. He suggests, for example that,
“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.”
But of course, this isn't just a challenge for children. What motivates adults to seek to understand, respond to and take up the perspectives of other adults? He comments:

“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.”

Why do we do this? Why do we take note of some people, ignore others, and take a wide berth of others? I see this in my own behaviour. My SPT can be very selective. It might also be possible that the way we see our roles and relationships within the school, church, neighbourhood might make a difference to the way we selectively apply SPT.

One interesting finding by Gehlbach was that people could be very selective across contexts and roles in how they engage in SPT.  For example, “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.”

As well, he found that people could be highly motivated to engage in SPT in one context but not another.  He found that a soldier was highly motivated when he was acting as an interrogator, but not when he was handing out discipline within his own unit.

All of the above prompted me to think about the relevance of this secular research for understanding my own empathetic inconsistencies. It seems likely to me that my own desire to engage in SPT might vary depending on things as varied as:

How busy I am? Am I so distracted at times by multiple balls to juggle that I can't see what's obvious in the person in front of me, in the queue at the bank, in the workplace, at home and so on.
How focussed am I on the agenda at hand? In my desire to deliver the current lecture or sermon well, do I fail to stay tuned to my audience before, during or after it?
Do I restrict my circle of contacts in such a way, that I screen out those for whom I find it hard to extend SPT?
Do I look for like-minded people to spend time with so I don't need to work hard at understanding the social perspective of others?

I don't have an answer to the above questions, but I suspect that thinking through Gelhbach's concept of SPT, and using it as an analytical lens for my life, might just make me a more effective teacher, neighbour, friend, husband, brother and apologist.

Ultimately, I know that my desire to love other people, my ability to empathize with those who weep and suffer, and my preparedness to try to place myself in the shoes of another and understand their view of the world should be motivated by love born of God's grace shown to me, and a desire to see others come to saving faith in Christ. The Cross of Christ and my understanding of the consequences for the people I know that reject it, must be the foundation of my burden for others.  Having said this, my suspicion is that Gelhbach's work might just offer a corrective to some of my sinful ways, and that this might just open my eyes to the 'social perspectives' of others, and direct me back towards God as I live my life with others.

Related Posts

'Asking the Second Question' HERE
'Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends' HERE

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