In psychology, empathic accuracy refers to how accurately one person can infer the thoughts and feelings of another person. It was first introduced in conjunction with the term empathic inference, which was presented by psychologists William Ickes and William Tooke in 1988. Since then research on empathic accuracy has explored its relationship with the concepts of affect sharing and mentalizing. In order to accurately infer another’s psychological state, one must be able to both share that state (affect sharing), and understand cognitively how to label that state (mentalizing). Neuroscience research has shown that brain activation associated with empathic accuracy overlaps with both the areas responsible for affect sharing and mentalizing.
Empathic accuracy is an important aspect of what William Ickes has called "everyday mind reading." Understanding the states of others is extremely important to successful social interaction, and the costs of failing in this task can be high, as seen in the social difficulties people with autism spectrum disorders face. Empathic accuracy has been linked to positive peer relationship outcomes and overall healthy adjustment for adolescents. In adult relationships, empathic accuracy correlates with stable romantic relationships.
In 1951, Carl Rogers published Client-Centered Therapy, the work he is most known for, and created three guidelines that psychologists should follow when in a therapeutic session with a client. These general rules are to have unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness. Roger's core goal for implementing these rules was to have the client actualize his or her own inherent potentialities, which is termed Self-Actualization. But, according to Rogers, self-actualization could not be accomplished until the need for positive regard, positive self-regard, and having a self-concept were gained, so having empathy as one of the main guidelines in therapy helps to move the client towards self-actualization. Empathy in Rogers's client-centered therapy is to better understand the client and his or her issues. This relates to empathic accuracy because Rogers's intent was not to simply make the client feel as if being pitied upon, but for the psychologist to be in tune with the client's needs and perspectives. To do so, the psychologist must be an accurate "reader".
The Rogerian view is based on Carl Roger's Client-Centered Therapy, and uses three criteria to measure empathic accuracy. These criteria include having repeated assessments of the perceiver's empathic accuracy, such as testing how accurate the perceiver can "read" other's thoughts and feelings. After the initial testing, the psychologist then allows the perceiver to generate their own inferences of the specific content provided by the psychologist. Lastly, the psychologist needs to operationally define empathic accuracy to fully understand and identify exactly what he or she is looking for within the perceiver.
Empathic accuracy became an active topic of social psychological research in the 1990s. Social psychology has explored in particular how empathic accuracy relates to the concept of empathy in general. Social psychologists posit two main theories for how people empathize with others: simulation theory and theory theory. In the simulation theory of empathy, we understand another by putting ourselves in that other’s state, or simulating their experience. Theory theory is more cognitive in that we find meaning in other’s behaviors and contextual cues, and put these together to construct an idea of what that person’s internal mental state is like. This debate between whether we empathize using simulation theory or theory theory has basically been proven a straw man, because empathy can involve either or both processes depending upon how it is defined and/or measured. Empathic accuracy in fact requires both processes; simulation theory correlates with the affect sharing aspect of empathic accuracy, while theory theory relates to one’s ability to effectively mentalize about that shared affect.
Neuroscience research has further solidified the shared roles of simulation theory and theory theory in driving empathic accuracy. Neuroscience work on empathy has focused on two main neural networks: the mirror system and the mentalizing system. The mirror system, which involves the bilateral posterior ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and bilateral anterior inferior parietal lobule, is a more automatic form of shared mental representation, and so corresponds with simulation theory. The mentalizing system involves various areas dependent upon task demands but converges in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The fact that these systems rely on separate neural regions is important because this means they be activated at the same time. Recent work on empathic accuracy has shown this concurrent activation, proving that empathic accuracy involves both processes. It follows as well that the difficulty of the task would differentially activate the two networks; more basic tasks such as simple emotion recognition through facial expression correlates with greater activation of the mirror system, while tasks that require more complex social judgments to assess another’s state activates the mentalizing system to a greater degree.
William Ickes and colleagues developed a method to measure the accuracy of a perceiver's inferences about the content of a target person's reported thoughts and feelings. In this method, the perceiver is asked to view a videotaped interaction that was previously recorded. The videotape is paused for the perceiver at each of the points at which a target person on the videotape had reported having a specific thought or feeling, and the perceiver's task to write down the inferred content of each thought or feeling. Because the researchers have a list of the actual thoughts and feelings that the target person reported at the various "stop points," they can compare the content of each inferred thought or feeling with the actual thought or feeling and assess the level of the perceiver's empathic accuracy. This method has been adapted for neuroscience research by including fMRI scanning of participants while watching videos of others. Participants then report perceived emotional states of the recorded individual while in the scanner, so that researchers can measure brain activity during the empathic accuracy task. In research on psychotherapy, audio and videotapes are sometimes used to record the sessions of a patient and therapist, which allows expert judges rate the "empathic responsivity" or empathic accuracy of the therapist towards the patient.
Social psychology research has focused on how empathic accuracy affects interpersonal relationships, and how people differ in empathic accuracy ability. Closeness has been shown to improve empathic accuracy; in a study of friends, for example, men were better at reading their friends' emotional states than those of strangers. In romantic relationships, empathic accuracy is higher when couples feel stable in their relationships than not, suggesting that people may be motivated to inaccurately interpret partners' states when they feel threatened, such as when evaluating whether a partner is physically attracted to someone else. In healthy relationships, empathic accuracy is linked to better instrumental social support, meaning that partners who are more accurate at inferring partners' states are better at providing tangible, concrete supports such as material goods or financial assistance.
Work on empathic inaccuracy and aggression toward spouses has shown that men who are more likely to be aggressive toward their wives are also less accurate at reading emotional states of women who they do not know and more likely to inaccurately label those women's states as critical or rejecting, suggesting a basic cognitive bias within these men. Research looking explicitly at partners has found the same trend, with men who have acted violently toward their partners performing poorly when identifying their partners' emotional states.
Research looking at gender differences overall has been mixed, with effects mainly showing up when participants are made aware of gender-role expectations and the fact that empathy is being measured. These findings suggest that, at a basic level, men and women are no different in empathic accuracy skill, but social norms can impact men's performance.
As previously explained, social neuroscience has been instrumental in locating regions of the brain correlated with empathic accuracy, which has helped clarify the debate regarding simulation theory and theory-theory. Other research in social neuroscience has explored processes that may affect empathic accuracy both behaviorally and in the brain. For example, a recent study looked at the relationship between oxytocin and empathic accuracy. Oxytocin, known for its role in regulating prosocial behavior, was found to improve the empathic accuracy of individuals who scored higher on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), meaning that increased levels of oxytocin helped people with poorer social skills but not those who were already socially skilled. Neuroscience methods have also been used to explore how compassion meditation relates to empathic accuracy. Compassion meditation, also referred to as Mettā or loving-kindness meditation, is a type of Buddhist practice in which the meditator actively focuses on increasing empathic feelings and compassion toward others. When study participants were trained in an eight-week course designed to teach compassion mediation, they were found to be more empathically accurate than controls and showed corresponding increased brain activation in areas related to empathic accuracy, particularly the mentalizing system.
Certain conditions can cause impairments in empathic accuracy. Alexithymia, which involves difficulty with labeling one's own emotional states, is linked with empathic inaccuracy. When considering the importance of the mirror system in empathic accuracy this deficit makes sense, as people who have difficulty recognizing their own emotions likely would show less brain activation in those regions, which are also used in recognizing others' emotions. Indeed, alexithymic individuals show decreased activation of the mirror system when presented with images of others.
Deficits in empathic accuracy have also been found in individuals on the autism spectrum. As stated, higher AQ scores correlate with lower empathic accuracy in normal populations Similar findings have been found in clinical populations, with those on the autism spectrum experiencing greater difficulty with empathic accuracy tasks.
An early summary of the research on empathic accuracy can be found in an edited volume titled Empathic Accuracy (1997). A more recent summary is available in a single-author book titled Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel (2009). For a discussion of the mirror system as it pertains to empathy and empathic accuracy, Marco Iacoboni has written a book entitled, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (2009).
- Theory of Mind
- Role taking theory (perspective taking)
- Simulation theory of empathy
- Mirror System
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