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Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy

50 Pages Posted: 23 May 2016  

Christine Ma-Kellams

University of La Verne

Jennifer Lerner

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: April 8, 2016

Abstract

Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others — i.e., to be empathically accurate. Some are better than others at this, which may be explained by mode of thought, among other factors. Specifically, it may be that empathically-accurate people tend to rely more on intuitive rather than systematic thought when perceiving others. Alternatively, it may be the reverse — that systematic thought increases accuracy. In order to determine which view receives empirical support, we conducted four studies examining relations between mode of thought (intuitive versus systematic) and empathic accuracy. Study 1 revealed a lay belief that empathic accuracy arises from intuitive modes of thought. Studies 2-4, each using executive-level professionals as participants, demonstrated that (contrary to lay beliefs) people who tend to rely on intuitive thinking also tend to exhibit lower empathic accuracy. This pattern held when participants inferred others’ emotional states based on (a) in-person face-to-face interactions with partners (Study 2) as well as on (b) pictures with limited facial cues (Study 3). Study 4 confirmed that the relationship is causal: experimentally inducing systematic (as opposed to intuitive) thought led to improved empathic accuracy. In sum, evidence regarding personal and social processes in these four samples of working professionals converges on the conclusion that — contrary to lay beliefs — empathic accuracy arises more from systematic thought than from gut intuition.

Keywords: Decision Sciences, Leadership, Management, Emotion, Facial Expressions

Suggested Citation

Ma-Kellams, Christine and Lerner, Jennifer, Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy (April 8, 2016). HKS Working Paper No. 16-017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2782596 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2782596

Christine Ma-Kellams

University of La Verne ( email )

1950 Third Street
La Verne, CA 91750
United States
(909) 448-4738 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://sites.laverne.edu/psychology/faculty-and-staff/faculty-and-staffchristine-ma-kellams/

Jennifer Lerner (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-9962 (Phone)

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