When it comes to empathy, don't always trust your gut

July 22, 2016, American Psychological Association

Is empathy the result of gut intuition or careful reasoning? Research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that, contrary to popular belief, the latter may be more the case.

"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," said Jennifer Lerner, PhD, of Harvard University, a co-author of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Until now, however, little was known about which mode of thought, intuitive versus systematic, offers better accuracy in perceiving another's feelings."

Individuals process information and make decisions in different ways, according to Lerner. Some choose to follow their instincts and go with what feels right to them (i.e., intuitive) while others plan carefully and analyze the information available to them before deciding (i.e., systematic).

Lerner and her co-author, Christine Ma-Kellams, PhD, of the University of La Verne, conducted four studies, involving over 900 participants, to examine the relationship between the two modes of thought and empathetic accuracy. The first determined that most people believe that intuition is a better guide than systematic thinking to accurately infer another's thoughts and feelings. The other three studies found that the opposite is true.

"Importantly, three out of the four studies presented here relied on actual professionals and managers. This sample represents a highly relevant group for which to test , given the importance of empathic accuracy for a host of workplace outcomes, including negotiations, worker satisfaction and workplace performance," said Ma-Kellams.

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."

Explore further: People who rely on their intuition are, at times, less likely to cheat

More information: Christine Ma-Kellams et al. Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy, SSRN Electronic Journal (2016). DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2782596

Related Stories

People who rely on their intuition are, at times, less likely to cheat

November 24, 2015
In psychological studies, intuition, or "gut instinct," is defined as the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. Now, a University of Missouri graduate student has determined ...

'Thinking and feeling'

March 7, 2016
So you had a terrible day at work. Or the bills are piling up and cash is in short supply. Impending visit from the in-laws, perhaps?

Study suggests fresh approach to autism research

January 18, 2016
The more expressive people are, the better they are at understanding the feelings of others according to a study by researchers at The University of Aberdeen published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Intuitive thinking may influence belief in God

September 20, 2011
Intuition may lead people toward a belief in the divine and help explain why some people have more faith in God than others, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Recommended for you

Study: Tinder loving cheaters—dating app facilitates infidelity

February 23, 2018
The popular dating app Tinder is all about helping people form new relationships. But for many college-aged people, it's also helping those in relationships cheat on their romantic partners.

The 'loudness' of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

February 23, 2018
The "loudness" of our thoughts—or how we imagine saying something—influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

Looking for the origins of schizophrenia

February 23, 2018
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopmental changes, including brain's inability to generate an appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D"Or Institute for Research ...

Color of judo uniform has no effect on winning

February 22, 2018
New research on competitive judo data finds a winning bias for the athlete who is first called, regardless of the colour of their uniform. This unique study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, puts to rest the debate on ...

Infants are able to learn abstract rules visually

February 22, 2018
Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.

Antidepressants are more effective than placebo at treating acute depression in adults, concludes study

February 22, 2018
Meta-analysis of 522 trials includes the largest amount of unpublished data to date, and finds that antidepressants are more effective than placebo for short-term treatment of acute depression in adults.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.