Detective Skills that Enhance our Social Perception - Social Week

By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Lwp Kommunikacio.

Everyday citizens from all walks of life may harbor interest in becoming detectives. They play with this inner urge by turning on the television and tuning into fictional or factual crime programs. Whether watching Law & Order or the murder headlines on the daily news, spectators grow eager to solve the mysteries they watch. Engaged, while in the comfort of their own couches, they conspire over nonsensical debates resulting in conclusions like, “It’s only 10 minutes into SVU, that guy can’t possibly be the murderer.”

Away from programmed spectacle and into the real world, what would happen if we applied skills of an actual cold-case detective like Olivia Benson into our every day lives? How could the mentality affect our daily social interactions and our ability to negotiate during conflict?

Intrigued scholars took these questions into investigation, motivated to discover new ways human beings could enhance their capabilities of understanding another’s perspective.

As the research developed, the curious capability became termed as social perspective taking, or SPT. Hunter Gehlbach, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, studies SPT, researching the likes of police detectives, lawyers, and counseling psychologists to see how people can mentally walk “in someone else’s shoes.”

Psychologists believe that SPT is a motive for satisfying one of human nature’s fundamental desires: to relate to others and form social bonds. As an educator, Gehlbach understood the importance of perspective taking. The interaction goes both ways; a teacher must decipher each day if students understand lessons, while students must assess the teacher’s expectations in order to perform well.

As such, Gehlbach’s primary interest relates to probing the underlying process that encompasses SPT to better improve teaching and learning in the classroom.

Gehlbach tells BTR that his most recent research was with professional “experts” in perspective taking. Their goal was largely focused on determining the motivational triggers for getting into someone’s head.

“One of the most interesting findings we had was the idea that if people define perspective taking as a central part to their role, it can be really important for whether they are motivated to take on another’s point of view,” Gehlbach says.

Police detectives, for instance, constantly engage in tactical interviews and interrogations with people in order to gain greater insight to a case. Deciphering verbal tones and body language is critical to a detective’s main role in deriving valid information out of people.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD Detective Sergeant and current adjunct professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, sat down with BTR to reveal social cues that communicate another person’s true experience.

“One of the things you do as an investigator is you establish a baseline which is how a person acts under normal types of questions, like their name and address,” Giacalone says.

When asking questions, Giacaolne says it’s important to notice if the other person changes their baseline, paying attention to cues like stuttering, breaking eye contact, or glancing at the floor.

“You may have touched a nerve on the person that may be trying to deceive or omit certain information,” he says.

Developing a baseline for each individual creates a map of a person’s behavior that can then be tracked by various questions. Even the slightest inclination of tone can signal a change in thought of the person being analyzed.

Giacalone explains that cultural cues and other demographical factors must be taken into consideration.

“In American culture, eye contact is extremely important, but that’s not the same for many cultures,” Giacalone continues. “Looking someone directly in the eyes could be a sign of disrespect.”

Effectively gauging such clues, or “active listening statement analysis” is the reason why great detectives are also astute listeners. Giacalone assesses that the skill can be helpful, but can also make people perceptive in real life.

“If you are in the store, reading what a person is actually thinking means deciphering every bit of information given,” Giacalone says. “So when a store clerk comes back to you and says, ‘Well I tried to look for it,’ it means they didn’t really.”

Once conscious of these cues, it can be useful to set aside moments in your head to gauge a situation or person. Gehlbach and his team worked to put together a cohesive process using such cues to facilitate peace making and conflict resolution.

For instance, considering analogous scenarios might help us deal with why a store clerk may seem incompetent. If we compare their perspective to our own moments of struggle–in perhaps math or in any area we find difficulty in–we may work towards having greater patience, compassion, and productive behavior.

“We are predisposed to seeing other people doing things as them being that kind of person yet when we do things it’s different,” Gehlbach says. “This is called the fundamental attribution error.”

When we free ourselves from that common error, we usually realize that people feel they are behaving for a valid reason. Granting benefit of the doubt can be powerful in helping us solve conflicts with others.

The conclusions from Gehlbach’s work were so influential that people used them to create computer games. Specifically, they were intended for students to expand their perspectives in effort to mitigate bullying in schools.

Geoff Marietta is a colleague of Gehlbach at Harvard and the co-founder of Giant Otter Technologies. He worked with Gehlbach to research the effects multiple role taking have on compassion and negotiation.

Marietta applied his findings to create the game School Life. It’s a virtual device where students walk in the shoes of a bullying victim, as well as a bystander, and then negotiate on a set of issues that are involved in an encounter.

Marietta tells BTR that the prototype has been developed using students in order to simulate the most realistic interactions.

“We worked with middle school and high school students to create a realistic script, interaction, and events on what the bullying looked like,” Marietta says. “It was an important part to get some of the specifics in there around the power imbalances.”

The game is still a module and is currently being tested for its positive effects before being implemented into school curriculums. Marietta says that many schools who tested the prototype requested more modules, as well as the opportunity to use the game once it’s released.

The lack of SPT does not only affect life in the classroom, or encounters in our everyday lives, but reaches our society as a whole.

“One of the huge problems in our society that is fundamentally a perspective taking problem is our political system,” Gehlbach says. “No one no one wants to compromise and no one wants to see the merit in the other side’s point of view.”

Encouraging students in the classroom to have different points of views on a topic could be a pathway towards a more receptive social climate where people value another person’s opinion rather than bullying or forcing views on them. Gehlbach hopes his efforts will entail a future of individuals more willing to take on the outlooks of others.