When Empathy for Your Partner Goes Awry, Why?

How your motivation affects the accuracy of your empathy may surprise you.

Posted Dec 02, 2020

pxhere free photo
Source: pxhere free photo

Empathic accuracy relates to an individual’s comparative skill in inferring what another person may be  thinking and feeling. Viewed from a technical neuroscientific perspective, it involves simulation theory and what’s strangely entitled “theory theory”(!). As regards simulation theory—or affect sharing—the pertinent neural network centers on our mirror system, seen as comprising the bilateral posterior ventrolateral pefrontal cortex and our bilateral anterior inferior parietal lobule, and it depicts a more automatic form of shared mental representation. Theory theory relates to our so-called “mentalizing system” and, depending on the particular task, involves different areas of the brain but converges in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (Lieberman, 2010).

And that’s as “high-tech” as I’ll get in this post. I mention these brain structures only to illustrate that the intriguing and often confusing subject of empathic accuracy has attracted researchers of many different, but overlapping, fields of study. A simpler way of explaining all this is that if we’re to correctly identify someone’s psychological state, we need (1) to emotionally share that state, and (2) cognitively (and accurately) label it.

The critical value of possessing this ability is unquestionable, for such understanding is vitally important for successful social interactions. Lacking this capacity our relationships are hindered in many ways. In fact, those members of the population whose empathic abilities are impaired are all considered mentally disturbed.

The curious term “mindblind,” introduced into the literature by S. Baron-Cohen (1995) and specifically applied to individuals at the far end of the autistic spectrum, points to a marked deficit in this group to recognize and appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others. Similar to infants, who haven’t yet developed a theory of mind, they can only project onto others their own experienced reality. Moreover, people with alexithymia, who can’t consciously experience, describe, or express their own feelings are hardly in a position to recognize anyone else’s—especially since the same areas of the brain are activated for both (Moriguchi et al., 2009).

Finally, schizophrenics are also seriously handicapped in making accurate empathic judgments because they can’t pick up on social cues obvious enough to those not on this pathological continuum. Without the capability to mimic others when, for example, they’re presented with another person’s yawning or laughing, they show atypical neural activation in making explicit attributions about their emotions (e.g., see Lee et  al., 2011, although a variety of researchers have observed this distinguishing phenomenon).  

Of all the variables that determine empathic accuracy the most dominant one is the “readability” of the person being perceived (i.e., the “target”). That is, what’s designated “target variance” has regularly been found to be substantially greater than perceiver variance. Which is to say that the empathic accuracy of the perceiver is based primarily on how transparent a particular target’s thoughts and feelings are relative to other targets (Ickes et al., 2000).

Doubtless, as most researchers have noted, some perceivers are much better at reading their targets than others—a capacity the origins of which seem almost equally divided between genetics and environment. Studies have demonstrated that these individuals’ intuitive gifts are consistently displayed across different targets. Efforts, however, to replicate the correlates of this ability have proved surprisingly challenging. Yet this variability in empathic accuracy is seen as more reliable than other (much more equivocal) variables—such as demographics, different personality traits, and interpersonal sensitivity skills (Simpson & Campbell, eds., 2013).   

The next question would be whether gender affects empathic accuracy. As a research topic, such differentiation has been subject to much investigation—with results somewhat less than definitive. The following quote suggests the hedging scientists have felt obliged to uphold:

Women are sometimes better than men and sometimes not; but men are rarely, if ever, better than women. These results set empathic accuracy apart from other measures of interpersonal sensitivity for which women show a consistent—and robust—advantage over men (Hall, 1978, 1984; Hall & Mast, 2007; Hodges et al., 2011).

The paradoxical qualification in this citation hints at what is key to this piece, which is that there are motivational dynamics at play that exert a strong influence on empathic accuracy and so deserve scrupulous attention. And researchers have in fact repeatedly investigated this issue. In the attempt to clarify it, let’s take a closer look at this curious ambiguity.

The crucial concept to comprehend here is motivational reasoning, which has been defined as “a phenomenon studied in cognitive science and social psychology that uses emotionally-biased reasoning [as contrasted with critical thinking] to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence, while still reducing cognitive dissonance” (Kunda, 1990). Much of what follows will elaborate on this powerful tendency of individuals to find arguments favoring their wished-for conclusions rather than adhering to the logic they’d employ in other (less threatening) situations.

Scrutinizing each of the many factors that have been studied to estimate empathic accuracy would be impractical and greatly overextend this post. So I’ll focus on this phenomenon only as it relates to close relationships. And, beyond that, mainly as it affects committed partners in an intimate relationship.

What needs to be stressed here is that such partners, emotionally invested in their relationship in ways that wouldn’t hold true with acquaintances, may choose to discount or ignore the other’s perspective when it could make manifest their conflicting, tension-producing differences. Ideally, in routine couples’ interactions, knowing one’s partner’s thoughts and feelings would promote a mutual understanding facilitating optimal coordination of their goals—both individual and shared—and thereby assist them in  sustaining a more satisfying and stable union. But two compelling exceptions to this ideal exist and must be factored into what, finally, better characterizes human reality:

(1) When either partner is aware that empathic accuracy could harm their relationship (or its closeness) by exposing the other’s relationship-threatening perspective, they might use motivated inaccuracy to help protect the relationship from the dissatisfaction and instability that could otherwise occur. That is, individuals who might in a particular situation have some reason to feel threatened by their partner’s perceptions would purposely be less accurate in their attempts to understand them; and  

(2) When either partner is so strongly motivated to find out the truth, despite recognizing that empathic accuracy might be damaging to the relationship, they could become hypervigilant and display motivated accuracy regarding their partner’s not-divulged thoughts and feelings. This latter exception, generally more common in women than men, relates to partners with insecure attachment styles or a suspiciousness exceeding any evidence that might actually warrant such mistrust or apprehension (Simpson et al., 1999; Ickes et al., 2003).

Research findings have regularly supported these contentions, suggesting how primal survival mechanisms pertaining to relationships affect the reliability, or credibility, of empathic inferences. It may sound illogical to conclude that couples are motivated to preserve a relationship by deceiving themselves about it. But it’s definitely psycho-logical—and ultimately, that’s what counts. (Hinnekens et al., 2016) call attention to this beguiling paradox in  noting: “Intimate partners are capable of ‘managing’ their empathic accuracy, dialing it up or down depending on the demands of the situation or their own motives.”

On the other hand, relationship conflict, if addressed with gentleness, tact, restraint, and compassion, can afford a couple a variety of opportunities to:

  • reconcile, or better accommodate, their differences in viewpoint and objectives;
  • clarify personal needs and desires;
  • articulate their concerns about a partner’s possibly inappropriate behavior;
  • reformulate the possibly compromised state of the relationship; and even
  • induce productive change on the part of one, or perhaps both, partners.                                     (e.g., see Eldridge & Christensen, eds., 2002)

The last thing I’ll take up here involves the safest way to apply accurate empathy, not only to strengthen a relationship but also to safeguard you from experiencing undue physiological stress and affective distress. Many writers have remarked that putting yourself in the other’s shoes, which defines emotional (vs. cognitive or compassionate) empathy, raises your hormonal stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Consequently, this kind of empathy renders you vulnerable to more pronounced fight or flight reactions—as though you, too, are going through the troubling  experience of the person you’re empathizing with.

Anneke Buffone (2017), the lead researcher in an academic study comparing cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy, concludes that “the chronic activation of the stress hormone cortisol [in emotional empathy] can lead to a variety of serious health issues. . . . On the contrary, reacting compassionately to another’s pain or suffering by reflecting on their feelings, without actually sharing them, results in a rather different outcome." Namely, those individuals “had a positive, invigorating arousal response, as if they were confronting a challenge that was achievable or offering advice that might help improve the student’s situation.” And, further summarizing her findings, Buffone states:

People assume that any kind of empathy is associated with positive health benefits and behaviours, but for the first time we have physical evidence that not all empathy is alike, that its positive or negative effects depend on the perspective you take.

So though it’s impossible to rule out your emotions entirely in accurately empathizing with another’s pain, you might consider whether it would be better not to echo or mirror their pain but instead more objectively contemplate on it. For vicariously re-experiencing their suffering contributes neither to your welfare—nor their own.   

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.


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HM1106 .094 2013.