The New Science of Empathic Accuracy Could Transform Society

Cerebral reasoning eclipses intuition when recognizing the emotions of others.

Posted Jul 23, 2016

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock
Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

Do you believe that the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel empathetic is more the result of gut intuition or systematic reasoning? Contrary to popular belief, new research has identified that engaging in systematic and methodical thinking—as opposed to relying on gut instincts or intuition—is associated with increased accuracy when interpreting others' feelings.

As it turns out, the latest empirical evidence suggests that you shouldn’t trust your gut reaction completely in order to optimize empathic accuracy, which is the ability to pick up on the motivations, mindset, and emotions of others. 

In the 1980s, William Ickes coined the term 'empathic accuracy,' which he described as "everyday mind reading" and discusses at length in his seminal book, Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel. Having a cognitive appreciation of other people's state of mind is also referred to as 'mentalizing.'

In our daily lives, all of us rely on the ability to read people’s emotions and put ourselves in someone else's shoes as we navigate interpersonal relationships and shape societal dynamics. I’ve written extensively on the subject of both empathy and Theory of Mind (ToM) in previous Psychology Today blog posts.

Technically, theory of mind is a branch of cognitive science that investigates how we ascribe mental states to other people. One of the keys to theory of mind is the understanding and acceptance that other people have different beliefs, desires, and intentions from one's own.

Theory of mind and empathic accuracy go hand in hand. Both are a key part of feeling empathy towards others and having the ability for diverse groups of individuals to co-exist and live together harmoniously. A lack of ToM and empathic accuracy fuels bigotry, racism, homophobia, and intolerance towards anyone who has beliefs or makes lifestyle choices that differ from your own.

The Sweet Spot Between Systematic Reasoning and Gut Feelings

Based on life experience, I believe there is an ideal sweet spot between solely trusting your gut intuition or strictly using cerebral logic when inferring someone else's gestalt and state of mind. Finding a healthy balance between these two extremes (that leans towards cognitive control) is key. 

I made a vow as a young adult that I would make equanimity and staying even keel emotionally a top priority when shaping the foundations of my emotional intelligence. Through years of practice, I've learned that whenever I feel angry, frustrated, or judgmental towards someone to consciously harness any irrational gut responses and take a bird's eye view of the situation.

Then, I try to logically deconstruct the specific elements that might be motivating the words and actions of someone who is rubbing me the wrong way before acting out. Taking a few deep breaths and consciously taming any visceral and primal responses while systematically replaying the event in my mind's eye usually prevents me from becoming emotionally reactive or volatile. I will literally make a flow chart in my brain that represents all the moving parts of what makes this person tick while playing out the consequences of various responses.

The goal of my daily personalized theory of mind process is to reach a state of empathic accuracy. For me, this is the best way to diffuse anger, practice emotional regulation, avoid burning bridges, and form closer social bonds. Give it a try. Maybe this technique will work for you, too?

The Neuroscience of Empathizing With Another Person's Pain

In the past month, there have been two studies that reinforce the importance of cognitive reasoning in terms of achieving empathic accuracy. Previous research on empathy has suggested that the same brain regions that allow you to feel pain in your own body activate brain responses necessary to vicariously experience the pain of others. However, the latest research shows that empathizing with another person’s pain involves different neural circuitry than experiencing pain oneself which requires a cognitive leap.

A few weeks ago, a groundbreaking study was published which reported that the ability to empathize with another person’s pain is rooted in cognitive neural processes that differ from the strictly sensory processes used to perceive and experience one's own pain.

The June 2016 study, “Somatic and Vicarious Pain are Represented by Dissociable Multivariate Brain Patterns," by researchers at University of Colorado, Boulder, was published in the journal eLife

While conducting their research, Tor Wager and colleagues at CU-Boulder compared patterns of brain activity in human volunteers as they experienced first-hand moderate pain directly (via heat, shock, or pressure) and then, as they watched images of others' hands or feet being injured in another experimental session.

When the volunteers watched images of pain being inflicted on others, they were asked to imagine that the injuries were happening to their own bodies. Interestingly, the researchers found that the brain patterns when the volunteers observed pain in others did not overlap with the brain patterns when the volunteers experienced pain themselves. Instead, while observing pain, the volunteers showed brain patterns consistent with mentalizing, which involves the systematic cognitive process imagining another person's thoughts and intentions.

Empathic Accuracy: Cerebral Thinking vs. Trusting Your Gut Instincts 

This week, Jennifer Lerner, Ph.D., of Harvard University, and co-author, Christine Ma-Kellams, Ph.D., of the University of La Verne, published findings of their research which found that—although most people believe intuition to be a better guide for accurately interpreting another person’s thoughts and feelings than systematic thinking—the opposite is actually true. These findings dovetail perfectly with the research of Wager et al. 

The July 2016 article by Lerner and Ma-Kellams, "Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Accuracy," appears online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

According to Lerner, individuals process information and make decisions in different ways. Some people choose to follow their instincts and go with what feels right to them and are more intuitive; while others plan carefully and analyze the information available to them before deciding what to do using systematic reasoning. In a statement, Lerner said, 

"Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others—that is, to be empathically accurate. Some are better at this than others, a difference that may be explained in part by mode of thought. Until now, however, little was known about which mode of thought, intuitive versus systematic, offers better accuracy in perceiving another's feelings."

"These findings are important because they show that commonly held assumptions about what makes someone a good emotional mind reader may be wrong," said Lerner. "The many settings in which the value of intuition is extolled—for example a job interview—may need to be reassessed with a more nuanced perspective."

Conclusion: Improving Empathic Accuracy Is in the Locus of Your Conscious Control

maxstockphoto/Shutterstock
Source: maxstockphoto/Shutterstock

We live in an era of growing xenophobia and fear-filled rhetoric that fuels an “us" against “them” social dynamic. Recently, news headlines have been dominated by reports of violence and hate speech against individuals and collective members of society that is exacerbated by a lack of empathic accuracy.

Oftentimes, it seems that a lack of empathic accuracy drives people from a mainstream "in-group" to marginalize and malign those from "out-groups." Based on the latest empirical findings, I'm optimistic that we can reverse the trends of intolerance and violence against one another if each of us individually strives to practice theory of mind, emotion regulation, and empathic accuracy in our daily lives towards the collective. We're all in this together.

I know this call-to-action might seem idealistic. But, the latest research confirms that empathic accuracy is in the locus of our conscious control and not just a matter of listening to your gut instincts. All of us have the power to make a conscious effort to strive for better empathic accuracy using cognitive function.

The latest research on empathy reminds us that although trusting your intuition can play an important role in assessing and recognizing other people's emotions and systems of belief—ultimately, empathic accuracy requires more systematic reasoning and cerebral mentalizing. Hopefully, reading about these findings will inspire every reader to be more cognizant of his or her capacity to practice empathic accuracy and theory of mind. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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