Empathic Accuracy

What Is Empathic Accuracy?

Empathic accuracy involves one’s overall accuracy in “reading” people’s thoughts and feelings on a moment-to-moment basis; it is, by definition, a measure of the ability to accurately infer the specific content of people’s successive thoughts and feelings.

The theoretical precedent of the term “empathic accuracy” is Carl Roger’s (1957) term “accurate empathy”, which was similarly defined. According to Rogers, this construct refers to the extent to which one can enter into the flow of other people’s subjective experience and accurately track the changing contents of their successive thoughts and feelings.

Empathic accuracy is therefore a broader construct than emotion detection (i.e., accuracy in identifying other people’s emotional states), because it concerns the accurate identification of thoughts as well as of feelings.

The ability to accurately read other people’s thoughts and feelings—an important aspect of everyday mind reading—is a fundamental skill that affects people’s adjustment in different domains of their lives. For example, it is observed that mothers who were more accurate in inferring their child’s thoughts and feelings had children with more positive self-concepts.

Findings also show that young adolescents who were good at reading other people’s thoughts and feelings had better peer relationships and fewer personal adjustment problems than those who were poor at reading others. And, with regard to people’s dating and marriage relationships, studies reveal that accurately reading a relationship partner to anticipate a need, avert a conflict, or keep a small problem from escalating into a large one is likely to be healthy and adaptive in different interrelationship situations.

The Emergence of the Empathic Accuracy Construct

The term empathic accuracy was developed in the late 1980s by psychologist William IckesOpens in new window and his colleagues, as a method for measuring the degree to which perceivers could accurately infer the specific content of other people’s thoughts and feelings, a construct labeled with the term empathic inference.

To shed more light, empathic inference is defined as the everyday mind reading that people do whenever they attempt to infer other people’s thoughts and feelings (William Ickes 2009, p. 57). Empathic accuracy is the extent to which such everyday mind reading attempts are successful (William Ickes, 1997, 2003). In this tradition, empathically accurate perceivers are those who are good at “reading” other people’s thoughts and feelings.

As earlier mentioned, the theoretical precedent for the empathic accuracy is Carl Roger’s concept of accurate empathy. Rogers had used the term to describe the (ideal) clinician’s ability to correctly infer, from one moment to the next, the content of a client’s successive thoughts and feelings. However, when it became needful for Ickes to name the inferential accuracy measure that he and his colleagues had just developed (Ickes, Strinson, Bissonnette, & Garcia, 1990), he decided to reverse the words in Rogers’s term to put the primary emphasis on the accuracy portion of his term empathic accuracy.

Ability to Infer Other People’s Thoughts and Feelings

The ability to infer the attentional and intentional states of others is clearly evident in most normally developing children by the age of 3 or 4. The ability to identify others’ emotional states takes longer to emerge and is often not well developed until early or late adolescents. The ability to accurately infer the specific content of other people’s thoughts and feelings represents the fullest expression of a perceiver’s empathic skills. This level of insight is beyond the capability of most autistic individuals, but is clearly evident—though in varying degrees—in most normally developing adolescents and adults.

How to Measure Accuracy in Judging Others’ Thoughts and Feelings

In the multiple of researches conducted on empathic accuracy, the construct has been measured and studied using two primary research paradigms: The Unstructured Dyadic Interaction Paradigm and The Standard Stimulus Paradigm (Ickes, 2001; Schmid Mast & Ickes, 2007).

The Unstructured Dyadic Interaction Paradigm

In this paradigm, two individuals are escorted to a laboratory “waiting room”, where they are seated together, while the experimenter excuses them on the pretext of having to retrieve something that is needful for the experiment. During the time they are left together (a time interval that varies according to the designations of the study), they are covertly videotaped without their prior knowledge—a practice that is essential to ensure that their interaction together is spontaneous and unaffected by the prior knowledge that any recording of their interaction will occur.

At the end of this time, the experimenter returns, probes for any suspicion that the interaction was recorded, explains the deception and why it was necessary, and asks the participants to sign a release form that allows the researchers to use the videotape as a data source. If both participants then give their signed consent to have the videotape as data source, they proceed to the next phase of the study. In this phase, they are seated in separate cubicles, where they each view a copy of the recording that was made while they were interacting.

Their task while watching the videotape is to stop it whenever they remember having had a thought or a feeling at a particular point during the interaction. Using a supply of thought or feeling inference forms. In this phase of the procedure, the experimenter (or an assistant) pauses the videotape for each participant at the specific point at which the interaction partner reported having had each of his or her actual thoughts and feelings, and the two perceivers (while still working independently) write down each of their thought or feeling inferences.

When all of the data have been collected, the empathic accuracy of each perceiver is judged by a group of five to eight raters. The raters assign “accuracy points” to each inference according to how similar it is in content to the thought or feeling that was actually reported by the interaction partner. For example, a reported thought of “This guy is nice” and an inferred thought of “How long will this experiment last?” would be rated with a 0, as they have essentially different content. In contrast, ratings of 1 or 2 denote “similar, but not the same, content” and “essentially the same content,” respectively.

By aggregating and transforming these “accuracy points” into a percent-correct measure, an overall empathic accuracy score is then calculated for each participant. Higher scores indicate higher levels of empathic accuracy on a percentage scale that has a potential range of 0 (none of the possible accuracy points) to 100 (all of the possible accuracy points). With as many as 6-8 raters, the interrater reliability of this empathic accuracy measure typically averages about .90; with fewer raters, this value will decline.

The dyadic interaction paradigm is useful for studying empathic accuracy in the naturally occurring interactions of pairs of individuals whose level of acquaintance can vary widely, depending on the purposes of the study: strangers, acquaintances, close friends, dating partners, or couples who are married or cohabiting. It is particularly well suited for making empathic accuracy comparisons between certain types of dyads (e.g., strangers versus friends, distressed versus nondistressed married couples) and within certain other types of dyads (e.g., an autistic person paired with a nonautistic partner of the same age, gender, and IQ level).

The Standard Stimulus Paradigm

The standard stimulus paradigm was originally developed to assess empathic accuracy in a clinically relevant research setting (Marangoni, Garcia, Ickes, & Teng, 1995). The paradigm employs a standard stimulus video, usually composed of excerpts from a set of previously videotaped interactions, although they can be taken from any tapes for which the target person’s thoughts and feelings are known. This compilation videotape is used as a standard stimulus tape in subsequent studies, in which participants are asked to make thought and feeling inferences at those points on the tape where the target person(s) reported having had a thought or feeling. The inferred thoughts and feelings are compared to the actual reported thoughts and feelings (as described in the previous section), and participants are assigned an overall empathic accuracy score.

The major advantage of the standard stimulus paradigm is the fact that the task is the same for all perceivers. This feature allows empathic accuracy scores to be compared across perceivers and to be correlated with relevant perceiver characteristics. Keeping the task the same for all perceivers also obviates the problem of confounding target expressivity with perceiver perceptivity. Researchers can therefore meaningfully assess individual differences in empathic ability and then use these data to explore issues such as cross-target consistency (Marangoni et al., 1995) and the correlates of empathic ability (Gleason, Jensen-Campbell, & Ickes, 2009).

Facts and Fictions about Everyday Mind Reading

In studies conducted during the past 2 decades, some beliefs about everyday mind reading have supported as fact, whereas other beliefs have been exposed as apparently fictional. For example, it now seems reasonable to claim the following as established facts:

  • Empathic accuracy improves with increasing acquaintanceship.
  • Empathic accuracy also improves following immediate, veridical feedback about the target person’s actual thoughts and feelings.
  • Perceivers’ levels of empathic accuracy tend to be stable across different target persons.
  • Highly inaccurate perceivers tend to have poorer-quality relationships and more personal adjustment problems than highly accurate perceivers.

On the other hand, there is no consistent support for the following apparently fictional beliefs:

  • There are empathic superstars who can read other people’s minds with perfect accuracy.
  • Women, in general, have greater empathic ability than men.
  • Longer-married couples are more accurate in reading each other than are newlywed couples.
  • Telepathy (ESP or psi) is the basis of our everyday mind reading ability.