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International Center for Tolerance Education (ICTE)
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Overview of Research

Note: Information about the Foundation's current research initiative, the TMF Harvard Research Project 2003-2005, is available.

The Concept of Tolerance

photoThe concept of tolerance is inextricably linked to the constructs of empathy, social cognition, affective perspective-taking, and inter-personal intelligence. While there are differences in these terms that are meaningful to theorists, the terms are often used interchangeably. Typically, these terms are explained from developmental perspective with stages or levels. Changes in the constructs occur with the child's cognitive and social maturity influenced by both innate physiological processes and environmental conditions. The development of empathy (the ability to feel another person's emotions vicariously), affective role-taking (the ability to make inferences about another's psychological experiences), and social cognition (the ability to understand people and think about social relations) increases in childhood with age and experience. There is general agreement that starting at age two or three years a child is able to differentiate feelings and respond to others' feelings (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King, 1979).

Selman's (1980) proposed five-level sequence for the acquisition of affective role-taking ability occurring from about age three or four or so to twelve provides a good example of a stage theory.

Level 0 - Egocentric - The child does not distinguish between his own and others' feelings.

Level 1 - Subjective Role-Taking - The child realizes that others think and behave differently because they are in a different situation or have different information. It is difficult for the child to think about his own and another's perspective at the same time. He cannot put himself in another's position to judge what that person thinks or feels. (This stage starts at about age three or four and is fully present at about age six).

Level 2 - Self-Reflective Role-Taking - The child becomes aware that another thinks or feels differently because he has his own values or interests. The child now understands that his view is not necessarily the right one, and is able to put self in other's place and knows others can do the same. (This stage starts at age five or six and is fully present by age eight).

Level 3 - Mutual Role-Taking - The child can think about his own and another's point of view at the same time. (Fully present by age ten).

Level 4 - Societal or In-Depth Perspective Taking - The child is able to take the view of society and its laws, understanding that people do not always understand each others' values. This last stage starts occurring at about age twelve and continues developing into adulthood.

The Development of Prejudice

Both anti-social (bias, prejudice, etc.) and prosocial (tolerance, empathy, etc.) behaviors are influenced by levels of cognitive and social skills acquisition. This means that there can be substantial differences among individuals and groups of children. The development of prejudice provides a good example.

Prejudice is defined as holding derogatory social attitudes or cognitive beliefs, the expression of negative affect or the display of hostile or discriminatory behavior toward members of a group because of their membership in that group (Brown, 1995). A child must be able to differentiate between his own and others' groups before exhibiting such behaviors. Since the 1950's prejudice has been a frequent topic of research studies, most of which have been conducted by Americans of European decent, and used samples of white and African-American children. These studies show that among white children there is little evidence of bias toward non-white children among the very young. However, this bias increases with age through the early school years and then declines in middle childhood. Nearly all children by age four or five can create racial categories. White 4- to 7-year-olds have been found to overemphasize within group similarities and between group differences equating "good" with things like themselves and "bad" with things unlike themselves. After about age seven when most children attain concrete operational thought and can differentiate individual differences from group differences, there is a reduction in prejudicial attitudes among 7- to 12-year-old white children.

Among African-American children a different pattern is evident from the research. Before age seven these children show greater variability in their attitudes than white children preferring both their own and other groups. Their preferences for other groups decline after age seven. Researchers have interpreted these differences to indicate African-American children's attraction at younger ages to both groups, in part because of the societal pressures for white preferences (Cross, 1991), and the children's limited cognitive concept of identity. By age seven to twelve children have advanced cognitive skills to differentiate personal identity from reference group orientation, the latter strongly influenced by larger society.

Increasingly, educational researchers are identifying affective perspective-taking or empathy as one of the key characteristics of a successful learner (e.g., Jones, 1990). They recognize that an individual's success involves the abilities to view the world through the eyes of others, communicate effectively with others, and value sharing experiences with persons of other backgrounds. Those children with higher empathic understanding have greater grade point averages (e.g., Bonner and Aspy, 1984) and higher-order reading comprehension skills (Kohn, 1991). Developmental psychologists have found that the problems some children experience in social relationships are due in large part to their inabilities to understand how others think and feel.

Despite definitional differences apparent throughout the relevant literature (Pecukonis, 1990) and persistent controversies about the specific behaviors desired and who should encourage them, there is general concurrence among various professionals serving children and their families that empathy and its related prosocial behaviors are critical to healthy individual and group functioning, that they are learned early and to a large extent learned permanently, and that they can be promoted and modified by educational interventions. A common saying among educators working to promote tolerance is that there is no gene for racism (Schwartz, 1994). While children may develop intolerant attitudes and display negative behaviors even at very early ages, they can be educated to think and act in other ways valuing human differences.

The Effectiveness of Intervention Programs

While many different programs have been developed in the last three decades to increase multi-cultural knowledge and experiences, and modify attitudes and behaviors regarding bias and tolerance, the available research shows that only specific program elements are associated with significant increases in empathy and other related desired behaviors. These elements include:

  • Training in interpersonal perception and empathic responding (e.g., Pecukonis, 1990).

  • An initial focus on one's own feelings and then attainment of a broader view to understand the feelings of others (e.g., Black and Phillips, 1982).

  • Attention to the similarities between oneself and others (e.g., Clarke, 1984).

  • Role-playing or role-taking activities that call for children or adults to assume the feelings or position of another (Black and Phillips, 1982).

  • Ongoing practice in perceiving or imagining another's perspective (Black and Phillips, 1982).

  • Positive trait attribution - ascribing value to empathic behaviors (e.g., Kohn, 1991).

  • Modeling empathic behavior by teachers (e.g., Kohn, 1991).

  • Studying famous empathetic persons (Dixon, 1980).



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