Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Perspective: A Classic Study

Pichert, James W., and Richard C. Anderson. “Taking Different Perspectives on a Story.” Journal of Educational Psychology 69(1977): 309-315

In what has become a classic study Pichert and Anderson investigated whether readers’ perspective can influence their determination of the significance of information and ideas presented in written texts. The researchers wrote two different stories, the House story and the Island story. The House story was about two boys playing hooky from school, with one boy convincing the other to go to his house; the story contained some details about the house that would interest a potential burglar and approximately the same number of details that would be significant to a prospective home buyer. The Island story, about two gulls flying over a remote island, included approximately the same number of details about the island’s exotic flora and its ability to sustain a shipwrecked sailor. These stories formed the basis of two experiments.

In the first experiment, all study participants were told to read first one story, then the other. For each story the participants were divided into three nearly equal groups. For the House story, one group was instructed beforehand to read the story from the perspective of a burglar, one group was told to read from the perspective of a potential home buyer, and the third group, the control group, was given no instructions. For the Island story, one group was told to read from the perspective of a florist looking for a place to raise flowers, another group was told to read from the perspective of a shipwrecked sailor trying to survive on the island, and the control group received no pre-reading instructions.

After reading each story, study participants for the first experiment were asked to rate the story’s idea units in terms of importance on a scale of 1 (unimportant) to 5 (essential). Non-control-group participants were reminded to keep in mind the role they had been assigned when rating importance. The results demonstrated that perspective did influence the readers’ evaluation of the relative importance of particular details of the story.

The second experiment used the finding of the first—that perspective influences what details are considered important—to examine the following questions: “(a) Are the more important idea units in a story better learned or (b) better remembered than less important idea units? (c) Does whether an idea unit will be learned depend upon perspective?” (p. 311). In this experiment participants, none of whom had participated in the first experiment, were randomly assigned to one of three perspective groups (the same groups as defined in the first experiment) for each story.

Participants were given two minutes to read a story; they then worked on a vocabulary test for 12 minutes. After the vocabulary exercise they were asked to write as many details from the story as they could remember (the free-recall test). The free-recall test was repeated seven days later.

The researchers compared the number of details remembered in the first free-recall test to the number remembered in the follow-up recall test. Results indicated that perspective can influence what details readers decide are important, and that importance in turn affects learning and memory.

So our perspective influences not only what details of an experience we notice, but also what details we remember later about the experience. These findings help explain why two people present at, for example, a family holiday celebration may years later tell quite different stories about the event. To understand each other’s interpretations, we must be willing to consider the other person’s perspective.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown