Trading Places

This is a photo of a man in dress pants and a man in jeans.Hide-and-seek: child’s play, or an important developmental tool that teaches children how to work together? British scientists Alex Gillespie and Beth Richardson think it might be both.

Gillespie, at the University of Stirling, and Richardson, at Lancaster University, are interested in perspective exchange — switching social positions as children do when they play hide-and-seek; as a game of hide-and-seek progresses, seekers become hiders, and hiders become seekers. Perspectives switch.

The researchers think perspective exchange might play an important role in cooperative activities that require people to work together across distinct points of view and distinct social demands. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Gillespie and Richardson tested their hunch.

The scientists assigned participants to two-person teams, naming one participant a director and the other participant a follower. Each member of the pair received a copy of the same city map, but the director’s map was marked with a route, and the follower’s map was not marked with any route. Directors were asked to describe the route to followers, who attempted to replicate the route on their own maps. Partners sat across from each other and were not allowed to look at each other’s maps.

The director-follower pairs completed this basic task three times. On the fourth trial, however, the director and follower were given discrepant maps; the follower’s map contained an extra street that made replicating the route on the director’s map impossible. In order to solve the task, team members had to agree that the maps were inconsistent and tell the experimenter about the inconsistency.

Position exchange seemed to help teams successfully solve the problem of the discrepant maps. When partners were asked to exchange positions during one of the first three basic trials — with the director becoming the follower and the follower becoming the director — they were much more likely to detect the inconsistent maps in the fourth trial.

More than half of the 22 pairs instructed to exchange positions in one trial ultimately reported the inconsistency in their maps to the experimenter. Of the 22 pairs that were not assigned position exchange, none reported the inconsistency.

A second experiment confirmed that position exchange resulted in much better performance on the map task than a perspective-taking activity alone — that is, an activity that required directors and followers to carefully consider what the task must be like from the other partner’s perspective. Actually walking in their partner’s shoes boosted performance — merely thinking about doing so was not as effective.

According to Gillespie and Richardson, further research might show that perspective exchange plays a special role in child development. Many common childhood games and activities — hide-and-seek, for example — incorporate perspective exchange. The scientists also note that perspective exchange and role play are rare in children with autism. A better understanding of the relationship among perspective exchange, perspective-taking, and autism might lead to new treatment options.
Gillespie, A. and Richardson, B. (2011). Exchanging social positions: Enhancing perspective taking within a cooperative problem solving task European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (5) DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.788


Congratulations Beth – very interesting research

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