Ma-Kellams, C., & Lerner, J.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Online First Publication, July 21, 2016.
Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others — i.e., to be empathically accurate. Some are better than others at this, which may be explained by mode of thought, among other factors. Specifically, it may be that empathically-accurate people tend to rely more on intuitive rather than systematic thought when perceiving others. Alternatively, it may be the reverse — that systematic thought increases accuracy. In order to determine which view receives empirical support, we conducted four studies examining relations between mode of thought (intuitive versus systematic) and empathic accuracy. Study 1 revealed a lay belief that empathic accuracy arises from intuitive modes of thought. Studies 2-4, each using executive-level professionals as participants, demonstrated that (contrary to lay beliefs) people who tend to rely on intuitive thinking also tend to exhibit lower empathic accuracy. This pattern held when participants inferred others’ emotional states based on (a) in-person face-to-face interactions with partners (Study 2) as well as on (b) pictures with limited facial cues (Study 3). Study 4 confirmed that the relationship is causal: experimentally inducing systematic (as opposed to intuitive) thought led to improved empathic accuracy. In sum, evidence regarding personal and social processes in these four samples of working professionals converges on the conclusion that — contrary to lay beliefs — empathic accuracy arises more from systematic thought than from gut intuition.
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Editor's Note: This article has profound implications for psychotherapy.