Can you Read me Now? Should You Trust Your Gut When Reading Others’ Feelings?

Are you reading my mind? People, on learning I am a psychologist, often assume I can. Sure psychological science does provide a lot of information about how humans think, feel, and behave. That said, I don’t read minds although as an educator I would love to have that power. Here’s a new study that just may help me power up.

A new study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds some light on the ability to read emotions. Christine Ma-Kellams (University of La Verne) and Jennifer Lerner (Harvard) unpack some of the major factors that determine how accurate we are when we try to guess someone’s feelings, a process termed empathic accuracy.

Some factors are clear (and seem obvious). Others may surprise you. We are more empathically accurate the better we know someone, the more we care about being accurate (of course!!) and the more attractive the person is we are reading. Women are better than men. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to be inaccurate perceivers of emotion.

The bigger question seems to be “Should you trust your gut?”. I know many folks who consider themselves to be intuitive, relying on their gut. Others tend to be more deliberate in their thinking and decision making. Is one form better than the other in this context?Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow

Deliberate thinking involves less reliance on stereotypes and knee jerk reactions. It involves attempting to think about multiple causes of behavior and entertaining multiple possibilities for what someone is feeling as they do. Deliberate thinking is effortful and hence hard. When we are tired or stressed we do favor our gut. For many day to day life tasks we rely on the time saving that automatic quick reactions provide. This study cautions us to do otherwise if we want to be empathically accurate.

There is a rich history of work elucidating the differences between different types of thinking. A PsychInfo or Google Scholar search aside, the reality that we have different forms of cognitive processing has been well documented in the popular press as well (yes, good summer reading too). Perhaps most famous is Daniel Kahneman (2011)’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Together with running a tutorial on heuristics and biases, Kahneman describes two systems of thinking, simplified to the System 1 and 2. One is fast and automatic. The other is systematic and deliberative. Each has its uses. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. In Banaji and Greenwald (2013)’s Blind Spot: Hidden biases of good people,  we learn more about the many nonconscious processes underlying the human mind. Finally, in Daniel Levitin (2014)’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, we get a denser take on the benefits of different deliberative styles of thinking.

41i-MyQYp2L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Now back to empathic accuracy. Ma Kellams and Lerner conducted four studies. In one they examined what people naturally believed predicted accuracy. In another they had professionals and managers conduct mock interviews during which they guessed the emotions of who they were interviewing. Both interviewer and interviewee were participants in the study so by measuring actual emotions (What do you feel?) and perceptions (What do you think the person you are interviewing feels?), the researchers had an objective measure of empathic accuracy. Another measure of empathic accuracy came from having participants view pictures of only the eye regions of faces and guess the emotion of the person. Finally, the researchers had participants either use their intuition or think deliberately. How? In classic psychological science tradition, the researchers told the participants to write about a situation where they followed their intuition or carefully reasoned. Yes, its that easy to manipulate.

The results reveal some counter intuitive findings. People in the study believed that accuracy is predominantly intuitive (study 1). In direct opposition to this, people who were less intuitive (and more deliberative) thinkers actually showed higher accuracy both in reading interviewees (study 2) or faces (study 3). The cherry on the top? Forcing people to think deliberately made them more empathically accurate (study 4).Blindspot approved.indd

Yes, more research is always needed but this set of studies has significant strengths. In contrast to many psychological studies (especially those from 10 and fifteen years ago that relied exclusively on college students), this set of studies used a range of non-college students. Consequently it is easier to see the real world implications of deliberate thinking.

We are often in situations that involve knowing what others are feeling. Accurately reading how our kids feel makes us better parents. Accurately reading how students feel can make us better teachers. Likewise, better reading your customer or client can make you a better businessperson, boss, or manager.

Can you read mind or emotions? Think deliberately and go beyond your gut intuitions and research suggests you are likely to be more accurate.

About the Author

Regan is an active scholar of teaching and learning. A social/personality psychologist by training, he is co-editor of APA's Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology journal, and author/co-author/editor of 14 books. He has published in the American Psychologist and Psychological Review amongst other outlets and runs the Pedagogical Pundit, a blog on teaching and learning. He is passionate about teaching and loves to cook.