To Empathize, Don't Trust Your Gut

Think carefully about what someone is saying, don't just respond emotionally.

Posted Sep 26, 2016

Our culture tells us that if we just trust our own emotional reactions, we can understand other people. Our gut will tell us the truth.

Yes and no.

There's some evidence that intuition is a better guide to whether someone is lying than trusting your judgment about someone you know well (we're more likely to be fooled by a loved one than a stranger)...

But to accurately read someone else's emotions, you're better off listening carefully and thinking about what they're saying. 

In a study described in the British Psychological Society Digest, researchers asked volunteers the best way to “become better at inferring the feelings of other people.” Three to one, the volunteers recommended using your instincts. Then the same researchers tested another group of highly educated volunteers to sort them into those with a more analytical style, and those who were more intuitive. They also gave everyone an empathy test involving rating other people's emotions in a mock interview set-up. The analytical types did better on the empathy test. 

Maybe the analytical people were just more intelligent overall?  But after controlling for intelligence with an IQ test, it still turned out that being analytical made you better able to identify emotions on photos of faces. 

The same person, it also turned out, did better at reading someone else's emotions after completing an analytical task.

So why do we think intuitive thinking is more emotionally accurate? Possibly because we tend to assume other people share our emotions. If a story makes you angry, you think the person telling it must be angry too—even if they actually look sad. 

I've been extolling the virtues of actually listening on this blog. Once again, you have to put yourself aside to truly listen. Don't react too fast.