Don’t Trust Your Gut

Image result for empathy gifWhat works better when it comes to interpersonal relationships and inferring the feelings of others: trusting your intuition (your gut) or being systematic (facts and reason)? A new study suggests the latter. From the abstract:

To determine which view is supported by the evidence, we conducted 4 studies examining relations between mode of thought (intuitive vs. systematic) and empathic accuracy. Study 1 revealed a lay belief that empathic accuracy arises from intuitive modes of thought. Studies 2 through 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 4 samples of working professionals converges on the conclusion that, contrary to lay beliefs, empathic accuracy arises more from systematic thought than from gut intuition.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has actually argued against empathy in favor of a more distanced compassion.1 Bloom argues that empathy causes us to focus attention on suffering at the cost of the bigger picture, leading to harmful policies and outcomes (including an increased capacity for violence and aggression). The study above seems to indicate that a more distanced compassion–one that is a bit more cold and calculated–may be the answer to achieving the intended goals of empathy.