Contrary to popular belief, empathy may be the result of careful reasoning and not gut intuition, a new study has found.
“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others – that is, to be empathically accurate,” said Jennifer Lerner from Harvard University.
“Some are better at this than others, a difference that may be explained in part by mode of thought,” said Lerner.
“Until now, however, little was known about which mode of thought, intuitive versus systematic, offers better accuracy in perceiving another’s feelings,” she added.
According to Lerner, individuals process information and make decisions in different ways. Some choose to follow their instincts and go with what feels right to them (intuitive) while others plan carefully and analyse the information available to them before deciding (systematic).
Lerner and Christine Ma-Kellams from University of La Verne in the US 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 empathic accuracy, 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,” added 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,” she said.
The findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.