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Empathic accuracy

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Empathic accuracy refers to the capacity individuals to infer the feelings, thoughts, and intentions of another person (Ickes, 1993) and roughly aligns with the concept of mind reading. Contrary to common wisdom, women do not always perform better than men on this attribute, especially if monetary incentives are awarded for elevated levels of accuracy. Furthermore, empathic accuracy sometimes, but does not always, enhance satisfaction in relationships

Determinants of empathic accuracy

Development of empathic accuracy

Some studies indicate that empathic accuracy can be developed through practice and feedback. In a study conducted by Barone, Hutchings, Kimmel, Traub, Cooper, and Marshall (2005), some students were granted opportunities to practice the task of inferring the thoughts and feelings of clients in videos of therapy sessions. They received feedback about whether or not their inferences were accurate. Over time, relative to a control group, their empathic accuracy did improve significantly over time.

Marangoni, Garcia, Ickes, and Teng (1995) also showed that feedback facilitates improvement in empathic accuracy. For example, this study showed that empathic accuracy does improve in clinical settings over time, especially when the target individual does share their thoughts and feelings.

Attention towards the eyes

Compared to other children, children with oppositional defiant disorder, especially if callous and unemotional rather than impulsive and aroused, are not as likely to gaze into the eyes of their mothers and express less affection (Dadds, Allen, Oliver, Faulkner, Legge, Moul, Woolgar, and Scott (2011). Perhaps because they do not gaze into the eyes of parents or other people, these children are not as likely to recognize when someone is experiencing fear or other emotions (Marsh & Blair, 2008). When encouraged to shift their attention to the eyes of someone, their ability to recognize fear improves (Dadds, Perry, Hawes, Merz, Riddell, Haines, et al., 2006).

Gender and empathic accuracy

Females do outperform men in empathic accuracy, but only in specific circumstances (Ickes, Gesn, & Graham, 2000). In particular, women outperform men only when participants are aware their empathic accuracy is being measured--or when the gender stereotypes are salient. These findings imply the motivation, and not necessarily the ability, of individuals to accurately decipher the feelings, thoughts, and intentions of another person differs between the sexes (Ickes, Gesn, & Graham, 2000)

Indeed, Klein and Hodges (2001) showed that male and female empathic accuracy were comparable, but only when monetary incentives were offered. This finding indicates not only that sex differences can primary be ascribed to motivation, but that effort can enhance empathic accuracy.

Cognitive factors and empathic accuracy

Empathic accuracy seems to be related to verbal intelligence (Ickes, Buysse, Pham, Rivers, Erikson, & Hancock, et al., 2000). For example, Ickes, Stinson, Bissonnette, and Garcia (1990) showed that grade point average is associated with content accuracy--a facet of empathic accuracy.

Matching level of detail

When people think about themselves, they tend to orient their attention to details, such as a minor blemish, instead of the overall pattern, called a concrete construal. In contrast, when people judge other individuals, they orient their attention more to the overall pattern instead of specific details, called an abstract construal. This disparity can actually provoke misunderstandings, compromising empathic accuracy.

To illustrate, when people consider whether or not they look attractive in a photograph, they are more sensitive to specific features, such as a few strands of unruly hair. They might feel they look unattractive because of these trivial flaws even if the overall shape of their face is attractive. In contrast, strangers will perceive the same photograph differently. They will focus their attention on the overall shape and, therefore, may perceive this person as attractive despite some flaws. The person and the stranger, therefore, may form divergent opinions.

If the person, however, was primed to adopt an abstract construal and focus on the overall shape, this disparity would diminish. Indeed, Eyal and Epley (2010) confirmed this possibility. Some people were told that a stranger would evaluate a photo of themselves in several months. This delay has been shown to promote an abstract construal. In the control condition, people were told that a stranger would evaluate a photo of themselves that day. Next, people rated the extent to which they looked attractive in this photo. A stranger then also rated this photo. If an abstract construal had been primed, the ratings of these participants and the stranger were more likely to converge.

The second study uncovered the same pattern of results, except participants rated their performance during a presentation instead. The stranger also rated this performance. The ratings converged if participants adopted an abstract construal. Subsequent studies showed this strategy is even more effective than instructions to assume the perspective of someone else.

Social factors and empathic accuracy

Pickett, Gardner, and Knowles (2004) argued that individuals are more likely to direct their attention towards subtle social cues, including vocal characteristics, and thus demonstrate empathic accuracy, to establish and maintain social relationships. Consistent with this premise, individuals who report an elevated need to belong, and thus feel motivated to maintain social relationships, demonstrated appreciable empathic accuracy. Furthermore, these individuals also could differentiate vocal tones more effectively--a capacity that was correlated with empathic accuracy.

Social factors might affect level of interest in the other person, which in turn can impinge on empathic accuracy. For example, Ickes, Stinson, LBissonnette, and Garcia (1990) examined empathic accuracy between a male and female. Content accuracy, a facet of empathic accuracy, improved when the other person was perceived as interesting and attractive. Self monitoring, which refers to the extent to which individuals adapt their behavior to align with the needs, preferences, and expectations of another person, was also positively related to content accuracy.

Conceivably, oxytocin might also amplify social cues and thus enhance empathic accuracy. In a study conducted by Bartz, Zaki, Bolger, Hollander, Ludwig, Kolevzon, and Ochsner (2010), participants watched various people in a video. During the video, they rated the extent to which they believed the person felt very positive or negative. In one condition, the participants were administered intranasal oxytocin. Furthermore, a measure of social competence, relating to autism, was assessed.

As social competence diminished, empathic accuracy--that is, accurate perceptions of the emotions of people in videos--decreased. However, oxytocin curtailed this relationship. That is, after oxytocin administration, empathic accuracy was unrelated to social competence. Conceivably, oxytocin increases the perceived salience of social cues and, thus, benefits people who are usually oblivious to this information.

Awareness of differences

As Todd, Hanko, Galinsky, and Mussweiler (2011) showed, when individuals orient their attention to the differences between themselves and other people, they are more likely to adopt the perspective of someone else, at least in some contexts. Presumably, awareness of these differences enables individuals to recognize their own perspective might be limited rather than universal.

In one study, for example, participants were exposed to pairs of pictures. For each pair, they were asked to identify either three similarities or three differences between each picture, intended to orient attention to similarities or differences. Then, participants observed a photograph of a person sitting at a table, facing towards them. On one side of the table was a bottle& on the other side was a book. Participants were asked to specify on which side was the book. If participants had considered differences between photographs, their answer was usually from the perspective of the person in this photograph. They answered "left" if the book was on the left side of the person, for example.

Power and empathic accuracy

Power can also affect the empathic accuracy or interpersonal sensitivity of individuals (see power). In particular, power can either enhance or reduce this capacity to decipher the emotions or intentions of another person (for a review, see Mast, Jonas, & Hall, 2009).

To explain these contradictory possibilities, Mast, Jonas, and Hall (2009) argued that power can coincide with empathic or egoistic goals. Specifically, some individuals, when assigned a position of power, perceive this role as an opportunity to foster and to support their subordinates--called empathic leadership. In contrast, other individuals exploit this power, primarily to facilitate their own personal goals, called egoistic leadership. Conceivably, empathic leadership might facilitate interpersonal sensitivity, whereas egoistic leadership might stifle interpersonal sensitivity.

In particular, when individuals experience power, they are not as concerned with averting problems and thus do not orient their attention to details. Instead, they tend to orient their attention to global, abstract concepts. This orientation towards global conceptualizations rather than specific details may facilitate the capacity of individuals to decipher the feelings and intentions of someone else (Mast, Jonas, & Hall, 2009). That is, deliberation on specific details could distract attention from the holistic configuration of cues that coincide with distinct mood states.

Both empathic and egoistic leaders might be able to process the mannerisms and behavior of individuals holistically. Nevertheless, egoistic leaders strive to enhance power, rather than offer support, which is related to activation of the left rather than right hemisphere (Kuhl & Kazen, 2008& motivational lateralization hypothesis). This hemisphere focuses more on logical rather than interpersonal cues.

To assess these propositions, in a study conducted by Mast, Jonas, and Hall (2009), participants imagined they had been assigned a leadership position of a large organization. Next, to induce an empathic orientation, some of the participants were instructed to imagine they were interested in both the personality and contributions of collaborators. To induce an egoistic orientation, some of the participants were instructed to imagine they were interested in the contribution, and not the personality, of collaborators.

Finally, participants completed the profile of nonverbal sensitivity (Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers, & Archer, 1979). Specifically, 40 brief video excerpts, depicting a woman who is portraying a range of emotions or intentions, are presented. Participants were instructed to decipher these emotions and intentions, selecting one of two alternative statements after each excerpt. Consistent with the hypotheses, the empathic leader was more likely to decipher these emotions and intentions correctly than was the egoistic leader.

Social anxiety

People who tend to be anxious in social settings are often more empathic. For example, they are more inclined to adopt the perspective of other people& they can also more accurately determine the emotions, but not the thoughts, that someone else is experiencing (Tibi-Elhanany & Shamay-Tsoory, 2011). If people are anxious in social settings, they are concerned they may be rejected or scolded by someone else. Therefore, they monitor the perspectives and feelings of other people carefully, enhancing their empathy.


As Ronay and Carney (2012) showed, levels of testosterone are negatively related to empathic accuracy. That is, elevated testosterone, as measured in saliva samples, tends to be inversely associated with the capacity of people to decipher the needs and emotions of other people.

In one study, participants engaged in a role play study in which they needed to negotiate with other people. They indicated the degree to which they, as well as the person with whom they negotiated, felt excited, powerful, nervous, dominant, in charge, anxious, and happy. Their levels of testosterone at two different times in the day were assayed. Testosterone level was inversely associated with the capacity of individuals to guess the feelings of the other person accurately. A subsequent study showed that empathic accuracy mediated the negative association between testosterone and interpersonal leadership skills, as gauged by a 360 degree appraisal. These patterns were observed in men and women.

Several mechanisms may underpin these observations. For example, testosterone diminishes activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region that is vital to empathy. Alternatively, testosterone may be associated with the pursuit of power instead of the motivation to accommodate other people. As their motivation to accommodate other people declines, their sensitivity diminishes.

Mirror neurons

Arguably, mirror neurons, primarily in the pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus as well as the inferior parietal lobule, may be vital to empathic inaccuracy. These mirror neurons tend to be activated both while individuals undertake an action and observe this action. The neuron exhibits the same response whether someone is watching or implementing an action. Accordingly, while people watch someone act, they feel as if they are executing this behavior. These neurons may be vital to learning skills by imitation as well as important to understanding the perspective of other people and experiencing empathy.

Dapretto et al. (2013) showed that mirror neurons may be deficient in autism spectrum disorder. In this study, individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and matched controls imitated and observed various emotional expressions. As fMRI showed, mirror neuron activity in the pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus was lower in children with autism, relative to control participants, while they completed this task. Furthermore, activity in this region was also lower in people who exhibited social impairment. Taken together, these findings indicate that dysfunctional motor neurons may undermine the social skills of some individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

Socioeconomic status

As Kraus, Stephane, and Keltner (2010) showed, relative to people whose socioeconomic status is high, people whose socioeconomic status is low are more effective at deciphering the emotions that someone else is feeling. Specifically, as Kraus, Stephane, and Keltner (2010) argued, if people are not wealthy, their life becomes more dependent on other features of the context, such as the level of support they might receive. Hence, people whose socioeconomic status is low might shift their attention from their personal thoughts and experiences to their immediate surroundings or environment. They might, therefore, become more sensitive to the subtle gestures and mannerisms of other people, improving their capacity to decipher emotions.

Kraus, Stephane, and Keltner (2010) reported some findings that validate this perspective. Individuals who had received limited education were more likely than individuals who had received four or more years of tertiary education to recognize whether or not someone was feeling happy, sad, fearful, or some other emotion, as gauged by a subset of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (see measures of emotional intelligence).

In another study, if participants evaluated themselves as low in socioeconomic status, they were more likely to decipher accurately the emotions that someone was experiencing during an interaction. Furthermore, in another part of this study, participants who rated themselves as low in socioeconomic status were more inclined to ascribe the behavior of someone else to the context and not the disposition of this person (Kraus, Stephane, & Keltner, 2010).

In the final study, participants contrasted themselves with wealthy or deprived people to induce a momentary feeling of low or high socioeconomic status. Even this induced socioeconomic status influenced the capacity of individuals to decipher the emotions of someone else (Kraus, Stephane, & Keltner, 2010).

Financial incentives

Financial incentives have actually been shown to compromise emotional accuracy. For example, in one study, conducted by Ma-Kellams and Blascovich (2013), participants watched a video of two people conversing. The task of participants was to gauge the emotions of these individuals. Some participants were informed they would win money if they performed well on this task. Other participants were informed they would win points, rather than money, if they performed well on this task& they would then win a prize if they accrued the most points. If told they will win money, instead of points, participants did not perform as well on this task. That is, they did not seem to recognize the emotions the two people actually experienced, as gauged by a previous questionnaire.

A subsequent study replicated these findings. In this study, however, participants were either informed they would win money or were not informed they would win anything. Furthermore, a relational self-construal, in which individuals primarily define themselves by their relationships, mediated this association between financial incentives and limited empathic accuracy. Presumably, when financial incentives are offered, individuals are not as focused on their relationships and friendships. Mechanisms that foster these relationships and friendships are inhibited, compromising empathic accuracy.

Possible determinants of empathic accuracy in romantic relationships

Kilpatrick, Bissonnette, and Rusbult (2002) identified three possible antecedents to empathic accuracy in marital relationships: commitment level, perspective taking, and femininity. These associations were less pronounced after the first year of marriage, however.

Possible determinants of empathic accuracy in other relationships

Jowett and Clark-Carter (2003) examined the relationships between coaches and athletes. Empathic accuracy was positively related to perceived similarity. Furthermore, empathic accuracy deteriorated over time.

Consequences of empathic accuracy

Possible consequences of empathic accuracy in relationships

Empathic accuracy seems to be inversely related to violence in relationships. Schweinle, Ickes, and Bernstein (2002), for example, showed that empathic accuracy in husbands towards their wives improved marital satisfaction as well as reduced the overattribution bias--the tendency to overestimate the extent to which women in general engage in critical and hostile thoughts. Similarly, Clements, Holtzworth-Munroe, Schweinle, and Ickes (2007) that aggressive husbands demonstrated limited empathic accuracy when attempting to ascertain the thoughts and feelings of their spouse.

Nevertheless, the association between empathic accuracy and relationship quality is complex. Many studies have shown that empathic accuracy coincides with satisfying relationships (Kilpatrick, Bissonnette, & Rusbult, 2002& Noller & Venardos, 1986). Nevertheless, empathic accuracy has also shown to be associated with dissatisfaction in romantic relationships (Floyd, 1988& Simpson, Ickes, & Blackstone, 1995).

To reconcile these findings, Simpson, Orina, and Ickes (2003) showed that empathic accuracy during discussions about threatening, confronting issues is inversely related to marital satisfaction, whereas empathic accuracy during discussions about other benign issues was positively related to marital satisfaction (see Sillars, Pike, Jones, & Murphy, 1984, for a seminal discussion of this possibility).

Mechanisms that underpin empathic accuracy

Hall and Schmid (2007) conducted a study to investigate the source of empathic accuracy--that is, to ascertain whether verbal information, vocal nonverbal cues, or visual nonverbal cues underpin the capacity of individuals to decipher the feelings and thoughts of another person. Participants received either a video, audio, transcript, or silent video, and told to decipher the thoughts, feelings, or thoughts and feelings of the protagonists.

Performance was impaired, but still better than chance, when both verbal and vocal cues were absent, as in the silent video. Performance improved when vocal cues were included, as reflected in the difference between the audio and transcript conditions. Verbal information, however, was the main determinant of performance. Nevertheless, the importance of visual nonverbal cues rather than verbal information increased when participants attempted only to decipher feelings rather than thoughts (for comparable findings, see Gesn & Ickes, 1999).

Measures of empathic accuracy

Ickes (1997, 2001) developed several standard procedures to assess empathic accuracy. In a typical study (e.g., Simpson, Orina, & Ickes, 2003), two individuals, often two spouses, engage in a conversation--often a conflict. They might, for example, be encouraged to discuss an unresolved problem in their relationship for about 10 minutes. This conversation is then recorded on video.

One spouse is then ask to watch the video and then pause the video if they remember the specific feelings and thoughts they had experienced at that time. They then record the specific feeling or thought on a piece of paper. The other spouse then receives a list of the times at which their partner had recorded a feeling or thought. They are then asked to infer this feeling or thought, using about two sentences.

Trained raters, oblivious to the hypotheses, privately rate the empathic accuracy of the spouse--by comparing the alignment between actual and inferred thoughts and feelings. For each point in time, raters assign a 2 for appreciable overlap, 1 for modest overlap, and 0 for complete divergence. These ratings are then averaged across the various points in time. Inter-rater reliability has been shown to exceed .7 (Simpson, Orina, & Ickes, 2003& for other measures, see Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers, & Archer, 1979).

Related concepts

Perceiver effects

Empathic accuracy may sometimes be confounded by perceiver effects. Specifically, as Wood, Harms, and Vazire (2010) showed, some people tend to perceive other individuals favorably. Other people, in contrast, tend to perceive other individuals unfavorably. They will tend to overestimate the extent to which a person is behaving deceptively and manipulatively, for example, potentially biasing estimates of empathic accuracy.

Interestingly, if people tend to perceive everyone else positively, they experience many benefits. They are more satisfied in life and develop strong relationships. They are also more agreeable, conscientious, stable, and intellectual. In addition, they are not as obsessed with power and supremacy.

This possibility was explored in a series of three studies, reported by Wood, Harms, and Vazire (2010). For example, in one study, participants rated other people they knew on a series of adjectives. They also completed a battery of questionnaires to gauge their own personality. If people tended to rate other individuals favorably, they not only reported elevated levels of life satisfaction, fit with peers, and desirable personality traits, they also exhibited limited levels of social dominance orientation, misuse of power, need for power, fear of power, and depression.

Benefits of perceived empathy or perspective taking

Individuals are more inclined to like someone who they feel has adopted their perspective. That is, sometimes individuals feel that someone understands their perspective concerns, emotions, and motivations. Two mechanisms explain why people like someone who adopts their perspective.

First, in this circumstance, people feel they are likely to share emotions and motivations with this other person. Accordingly, they feel they share an identity in common, called self-other overlap. Usually, people like to perceive their own qualities, values, and behaviors favorably. Hence, they tend to perceive anyone who shares their identity--and thus is assumed to demonstrate similar qualities, values, and behaviors--favorably as well.

Second, people assume that anyone who has adopted their perspective understand their needs, concerns, and emotions. They feel the other person will be empathic and thus care about their wellbeing. People tend to like anyone who cares about their wellbeing.

Goldstein, Vezich, and Shapiro (2014) proposed, and then explored, these arguments. In one study, they interacted with a person online, unaware the responses of this person were actually programmed by the researchers. In particular, participants greeted the other person, who replied with another greeting, like "Nice to meet you". And, together with the other person, participants asked and answered a few simple questions. Next, they wrote an essay to this person in which they described a time in which they felt they had been treated unfairly.

Then, to manipulate whether the other person was assumed to adopt their perspective, participants received the instructions the other person had received. The person was told either to adopt the perspective of the participants, as though "walking in their shoes", or to maintain a neutral and objective stance. After reading the response of this person, participants answered questions to assess the degree to which they like this individual and perceive this person as empathic and similar to themselves.

If participants had assumed the other person adopted their perspective, they were more inclined to like this individual. Level of similarity to this person and empathy mediated this relationship. Other studies showed that different control condition, such as failed attempt to adopt the perspective of participants or no information about whether they adopted this perspective, uncovered the same pattern of results.


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Last Update: 6/6/2016