Reading what other people are feeling is an important skill that helps us navigate conflicts, deepen relationships, and negotiate effectively. So what’s the best way to approach this? New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that most of us believe that the best approach is to trust our instincts. But the paper goes on to show that, on the contrary, accurate empathy comes from operating deliberately and analytically.
Christine Ma-Kellams of the University of La Verne and Jennifer Lerner of Harvard began by asking participants recruited online to consider a simple choice: whether to advise a struggling subordinate to take a more analytical approach or a more intuitive one. When the subordinate’s problems were framed generically, participants didn’t on balance prefer one answer over the other. But when the problem was to “become better at inferring the feelings of other people” then the advice to go on instinct was three times as popular as the analysis option.
The participants’ intuition isn’t so crazy. After all, other people’s emotions provoke an emotional reaction in us: consider the way infants mimic the expressions of their mothers, and the immediate visceral reaction we experience when we witness strong emotions in others. Also it’s known that an over-analytical approach can be counterproductive in other contexts – for instance, describing details of faces can lead to poorer later recognition of faces. But is it true in this case – is gut feeling really the better strategy?
To find out, Ma-Kellams and Lerner asked 72 managers and professionals on an executive training programme to participate in a mock interview, either as the interviewee or interviewer, and then to rate their own emotions, as well as those of their counterpart. Participants also demonstrated their tendency towards deliberate analysis by completing a cognitive reflection test, a set of problems where the intuitive answer is misleading. In one problem “a bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” A 10c ball comes readily to mind, but some mental labour shows the true answer to be otherwise. Crucially, the better that participants scored on this measure, the higher their accuracy in rating their partner’s feelings.
In a larger sample (n=449) from the training programme, the researchers found a similar association between cognitive reflection and accuracy in judging emotions from photographs, using the standardised Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test where participants select the best fitting emotion from a menu for each face viewed. In this case, the participants also completed an intelligence test, as the researchers thought higher intelligence could be driving scores both in the cognitive reflection test and the empathic task. But controlling for intelligence, the association between cognition reflection and emotional accuracy remained.
In a final study, Ma-Kellams and Lerner showed that experimentally inducing a more reflective, analytic mindset produced better emotion-reading skills. Seventy-four participants from the same executive course were randomly allocated to one of two conditions: to write about either a situation in which following instincts led in the right direction, or one where reasoning through the issue led to the right outcome. Participants then participated in interviews as before, and those in the second group were significantly better at reading the emotions of their counterpart.
Why is the popular belief at odds with the reality? There is a strong association between concepts of instinct and emotion generally, and popular culture often depicts rational people as confounded by emotional displays. In addition, under some conditions instinct may give us all we need, as when an emotional display is very pronounced and unmasked. But more often, what we get is subtle or ambiguous, and it can take work to read it. Whether a weak smile is an attempt at warmth or an expression of regret depends upon the details, and requires us to pull together the available clues. After all, the realm of human emotion is rarely an open and shut case.