Developing social perspective (Perspective-taking, part 2)

[Editor’s note: Today’s post is the second in a series by Dr. Sherri Nevada McCarthy on the topic of perspective-taking, this time exploring its development in children and adolescents].

Children looking at each other

Illustration by Margo Bendery, staff illustrator for Engaging Peace

Perspective-taking is not the same thing as empathy. Knowing someone is sad, for example, and feeling sympathy and a desire to ease the pain is important in human relations, but not the same thing as understanding what sadness might feel like to that person, or why it exists.

Jean Piaget, a well-known developmental psychologist, considered perspective-taking an important component of cognitive development, and research seemed to show it generally did not emerge until at least the age of six.

Other research shows that, for some, it may never emerge. The ability to see things from another’s viewpoint may not just develop automatically with age. It is likely also tied into cultural, social and educational experiences.

According to Robert Selman, with experience and guidance, children generally move through five levels of perspective-taking following this pattern:

  • First, at Level 0, “undifferentiated perspective-taking” (ages 3-6), they do not recognize that others have feelings, ideas or views different from their own.
  • At Level 1, “social-informational perspective-taking” (ages 5-9), young children begin to realize that others might have different feelings or views than their own, but can’t consider what these might be, especially if those views or feelings are in opposition.
  • At Level 2, “self-reflective perspective-taking” (ages 7-12), children begin to be able to consider the opinions and feelings of someone else as well as their own.
  • Levels 3, “third-party perspective-taking” (ages 10-15) and 4, “societal perspective-taking” (ages 14-adult), which usually do not emerge until adolescence, allow increasing abilities to predict, understand and coordinate various perspectives.

As children mature, they take more information into account. They realize that different people can react differently to the same situation. They develop the ability to analyze the perspectives of several people involved in a situation from the viewpoint of an objective bystander, and they can even imagine how different cultural or social values would influence the perceptions of the bystander.

What have you noticed about how people do or do not see things from another’s point of view? And what difference does that make for issues of war and peace?

Sherri McCarthy, Professor of Psychology at Northern Arizona University-Yuma

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18 Responses to Developing social perspective (Perspective-taking, part 2)

  1. Andrew Potter says:

    This is a very interesting post and brings many things to mind. I couldn’t help but think about the difficult years that all adolescents go through as their minds take form. Perhaps part of this difficulty lies in the fact that, at any moment, all teens are at different stages in this developmental process. Consider a thirteen year old with an abnormally mature “perspective taking” mind, surrounded by peers stuck at stage one or two of this process. I think this discrepancy in development can be a real painful experience for many teens.

    Can this same concept be projected to nations? Do some nations have bigger perspective taking abilities than others? It would seem that this is a highly personal matter, one that is difficult to generalize to a nation as a whole. However, no one can deny the importance of “perspective taking” when it comes to war and peace. For instance humanitarian aid stems from the very ability of people to unite in a collective “moral engagement,” in order to extend a helping hand.

    The opposite of this seems to be a nation’s decision to engage in war. The extent to which a nation can disregard the perspectives of another would weigh heavily on this decision. This process is the motor behind what we understand to be “Moral Disengagement.” How sad indeed to disengage from something that is so natural to us: our ability to relate to others.

    At any rate it would seem that the peaceful actions and ideals of a nation would flourish more readily if this NATURAL “perspective taking” ability were nurtured rather than hindered. I think a key step toward nurturing this ability comes by engaging our perception of others as similar rather than different. “Perspective taking” becomes an accelerated process when the people we consider are our brothers and sisters rather than foreigners or objects.

    • Sherri McCarthy says:

      Good comments, Andrew. I agree that how we view people of other nations or groups (as similar or different) is an important piece of the puzzle. This is an area where I think technology (blogs, interactive gaming, etc.) are a potential tool in peace building. When we are able to interact on common grounds with others, it makes us much more likely to view them as “us” rather than “them” and be more motivated to understand perspectives.

  2. Erin says:

    I found this post to be extremely enlightening. I’ve noticed that many people engage into conflict without any intention of achieving a resolution. The reason for this may be that many are motivated to simply “win” an argument, rather than to understand the intentions/attitudes of someone else. It seems as though an individual’s self-esteem takes precedence over taking the perspective of others.

    To acknowledge another viewpoint, means that there is a chance someone else may be “right” and you may be “wrong.” To safeguard self-esteem, many people completely close themselves off to the act of understanding others. If the views of everyone else are ignored and dismissed, then you are automatically “right” at all times. It is for this reason that I believe some people are hesitant, even afraid, to immerse themselves into a mindset that differs from their own. Many choose to surround themselves with those who hold similar beliefs. They may choose to live in a certain area, attend a specific school, watch certain tv shows that reflect their own attitudes, reinforcing the notion that they are always “right.” If someone is born into a particular way of life and continues to submerse him/herself into this culture, it is entirely possible that they will never fully develop the tools necessary to take another perspective.

    Assuming that the capacity to empathize is innate is definitely incorrect. People need to actively step outside their comfort zone and come into direct contact with outsiders. Furthermore, people need to listen, not simply dismiss, the views of others. It is ok if one still believes that he/she hold the “correct” view, but they need to understand the value of the stance of someone else.

  3. Andrew Potter says:

    Yeah. I completely agree with your ideas. I think the process is only natural when we are exposed to differing viewpoints for extended periods of time. A spark goes off and we relate. I think that when people are surrounded by other cultures (ex. a trip abroad) they go through a process. First, they dismiss, then they become fascinated, and finally they search desperately for commonalities. The need to relate is fundamental in many circumstances, but so many people avoid it if they can or if it simply doesn’t occur to them.

  4. Mimi Maritz says:

    Thank you for this post. It got me thinking about volunteer work I have been involved with the past few months for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. As a medical advocate I meet victims of rape at the hospital in order to support them in moments of crisis. Being overwhelmed with trauma, it is easy for victims to regress a few stages in Selman’s levels of perspective taking. What is most important for victims to regain strength and stability is to validate their emotions and have an understanding for their pain – acknowledging that each individual reacts to trauma differently.

    What is interesting is to expand this notion of a developing child advancing through levels of perspective taking and to incorporate nations into this model (as Andrew mentioned earlier). I think that during moments of crisis, nations too can regress in their developmental process of perspective taking. This might relate well to the chaos that has consumed Egypt today. Just like with individual people in crisis, we cannot expect the mob of people in Egypt to be logical and look at the bigger picture. For example, the mob wants Mubarak to step down right away but this might lead to extremists controlling the country who are outraged and therefore not able to engage in perspective taking at this moment. Maybe the first step that Obama should have taken was to validate the emotions of the Egyptians – anger, disenchantment, and frustration. Some have criticized Obama for not uttering these words earlier. Only after people and nations feel validated will they regain equilibrium and participate in perspective taking.

    Thank you again for stimulating these thoughts! I look forward to more posts, Sherri.

    • kathiemm says:

      Hi, Mimi.
      I think the idea that Obama should have validated the emotions of the Egyptian protestors is a good one. Validation seems so important to people–and probably a good perspective taking ability is essential to recognizing that fact and to thinking about how to provide validation of thoughts and feelings (but not always behaviors) effectively (even in the midst of enormous political pressures).

  5. Jill Zingarelli says:

    I agree. I think all of us seek some form of validation from others, whether it’s President Obama validating the frustrations of the Egyptian nation or a friend telling us they understand why we’re having a bad day. This understanding is important on both an intellectual and human level, not just our minds but our emotions as well. To misunderstand or outright dismiss each other on both of these levels is one of the biggest judgment errors we can make, and it’s often these types of errors that lead to escalation of conflict and war. Each nation brings to the table their own motivations, histories, grievances, prejudices, and cultural lenses that mediation is near impossible if both sides don’t attempt to walk a mile in the other’s shoes.

  6. Iris Aleman says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I work at a juvenile corrections facility and I have noticed that some of the juveniles that come in do not have the ability to understand and coordinate various perspectives and other juveniles that just do not want to understand and coordinate various perspectives. We receive individuals from age nine to eighteen years of age. I have noticed that the ones that do understand and coordinate various perspectives come in once or twice and they never come back again, but there are other individuals that always want to blame their parents, teacher, police officers and sometimes even the correction officers for them getting in trouble. I wonder what makes these individuals think different? What can we do to help them understand and take responsibility for their own actions? and how can we help those juveniles see other individuals’ perspectives?

    • Sherri McCarthy says:

      That is an excellent observation, and it also validates something I have noticed. I often work on a volunteer consulting basis with local restorative justice programs here in Arizona, often involving my students. Developing activities for young adolescents to do as part of “community justice board” requirements that develop perspective-taking skills (e.g., conferencing with victims, researching potential consequences of their actions to their parents and community, etc..) seems to be one of the most effective strategies to keep them from re-offending–and I am certain that enhanced perspective taking ability is responsible for that. We need to find ways through standard school and community activities to enhance these abilities in children and adolescents! I also think the parallel to national perspectives and perspective-taking abilities being similar to those of individuals is valuable, with important implications for diplomacy and international relations. The U.S. is a relatively young country compared to many. Does that mean we are still “children” in this ability or has our multicultural environment and focus accelerated our development? What do you all think?


  7. robyn moloney says:

    I am interested in the development of perspective-taking in children and young adolescents, in the context of foreign language learning, much of which now features an intercultural perspective approach. I would greatly appreciate any leads in reading in this area.

  8. Todd says:

    As I read the article on perspectives of peace and then developing social perspective and to me it is apparent that we as a society needs to educate our children on perspective taking as early as possible. If children are taught how to see things from another person’s point of view and can understand it, we may be able to prevent unnecessary conflict.

    I remember when I was in elementary school in San Diego, CA in 1979, we had several kids begin to join the school from Laos. There was one kid that joined my fifth grade class and he always smiling and trying to understand what was being taught as he didn’t speak any english. This was before we had English as a second language (ESL) in school. I remember wondering what he was going through, living in a new land and not knowing the language. I began to realize that what he needed was someone to talk to and be a friend. We began to hang around together and our friendship caught the attention of fellow classmates who didn’t quite understand what I was doing with the “new” kid. Some of the other Laotian students were frequently getting into fights because they were different. As I look back on this time in my life and read these articles I realize how perspective taking (at the time I just thought I was being curious and friendly) can prevent conflict even on the smallest of scales.

    • kathiemm says:

      what a heart-warming story! Thank you so much, Todd, for telling us about that elementary school story. Your kindness then could have had reverberations in the life of not just that one Laotian boy but the other boys and their families as well. It would be great to help instill social perspective taking skills in elementary school children. Based on your own observations and experiences, do you have any ideas about how to do this in a way that can really have a successful outcome? Young children don’t always appreciate lessons about the Golden Rule, etc., but I am sure there are some tried and true strategies. I welcome comments on this from all readers.

    • Dahlia Wasfi says:

      Very powerful story.

      • Todd says:

        Hello Dahlia,

        Before reading these articles I never really thought about it. However, I would suggest a buddy system or some type of “Find a Friend” program where children of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures are paired together so that they can learn from each other.

        I think in my situation I had to learn perspective taking because we didn’t speak the same language. It was as if it was learned out of necessity.

        • Dahlia Wasfi says:

          Agreed, you can say that it was learned out of necessity, but not every child–or adult, for that matter–actually sees that necessity. In my own experience, my father is Iraqi (my mother American), and we lived in Iraq when I was little (until around age 5). English is my first (and only) language, while my aunts and uncles spoke only Arabic. That made me want to avoid them, because I couldn’t understand them. What I wouldn’t give to go back and spend more time with them… In the story you tell, you acted very courageously and compassionately. Actions like that change the world….please, carry on!!

          • kathiemm says:

            such a moving story. thanks for sharing, Dahlia. and the same message back to you: please, carry on.

  9. Miriam says:

    hi there,
    such a great post very interesting and the comments also. thank you.

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