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(Ma-Kellams 2016)

  • Christine Ma-Kellams: University of La Verne
  • Jennifer S. Lerner: Harvard Kennedy School


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.

  • talks about Empathic accuracy
  • Does systematic thinking improve empathic accuracy?

Empathy  as intuitive and automatic nature.
  • Say empathy is automatic
    • Vischer (1873)
    • Lipps (1903)
    • ichener (1909) 
    • McDougall (1908/2003)
    • (Zaki, 2014)
    • infants instinctively mimic their mothers’ emotional expressions (Haviland & Lelwica, 1987),
    • adults tend to mimic others’ facial movements as well (Chartrand & van Baaren, 2009; Hess & Blairy, 2001; Lundqvist, 1995; Niedenthal, Brauer, Halberstadt, & Innes-Ker, 2001)

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Topic Area: (In which field / sector / perspective was this study conducted?)

Definition(How was empathy defined?)

Benefits(Were any benefits of empathy mentioned?)

Criticisms  (Were any criticisms, negative effects or risks of empathy mentioned?)

Methods(What were the methods used to train empathy?)

Target Group:  (Who participated in this study / training?)

Measurements(About the assessment: How was the change in empathy measured before/after the intervention/method?) 

Result: (What was the result?)

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