Empathic Accuracy Definition
Empathic accuracy refers to the degree to which people can accurately infer the specific content of other people’s thoughts and feelings. The ability to accurately read other people’s thoughts and feelings (everyday mind reading) is a fundamental skill that affects people’s adjustment in many different aspects of their lives.
For example, one researcher found that mothers who were more accurate in inferring their child’s thoughts and feelings had children with more positive self-concepts. Other researchers have found 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, other researchers have found 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.
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History, Measurement, and Validation of Empathic Accuracy
Empathic accuracy is a subarea of interpersonal perception research—a field of study that has had a long tradition in psychology. As a broad generalization, it can be argued that interpersonal perception research began with the study of accuracy regarding stable and enduring dispositions, such as traits and attitudes, and then gradually turned to the study of accuracy regarding more unstable and transient dispositions such as current thoughts and emotions (feelings).
The study of empathic accuracy emerged in the late 1980s when psychologist William Ickes and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Arlington devised a method for measuring the degree to which research participants could accurately infer the specific content of other people’s thoughts and feelings. The essential feature of their method is that a perceiver infers a target person’s thoughts or feelings either from a videotaped record of their spontaneous interaction together (the unstructured dyadic interaction paradigm) or from a standard set of the videotaped interactions of multiple target persons (standard stimulus paradigm). In each case, the target persons have previously reported the actual thoughts and feelings they had at specific points during the videotaped interaction, thereby enabling the researchers to compare the perceiver’s inferred thoughts and feelings with the target person’s actual thoughts and feelings to assess the perceiver’s empathic accuracy.
To obtain a measure of empathic accuracy, independent raters make subjective judgments about the similarity between the content of each actual thought or feeling and the content of the corresponding inferred thought or feeling. Then, the number of each perceiver’s total accuracy points is divided by the maximum number of possible accuracy points to obtain a percent-correct empathic accuracy measure that can range from 0 to 100.
Across many studies conducted since 1988, this method of measuring empathic accuracy has proved to be both reliable and valid. Raters typically agree with each other in their judgments of how many accuracy points should be assigned to each of the various thought/feeling inferences. In addition, perceivers tend to be quite consistent in how well or how poorly they infer the specific content of different target persons’ thoughts and feelings. That is, some perceivers are consistently good at reading others, other perceivers are consistently average, and still other perceivers are consistently poor.
A number of predictive validity studies have been conducted to date. One of the first predictions tested was that, if the method for measuring empathic accuracy was indeed valid, close friends should display higher levels of accuracy than strangers when inferring the content of each other’s thoughts and feelings. This prediction was confirmed in studies which revealed that, on average, the empathic accuracy scores of close, same-sex friends were about 50% higher than those of same-sex strangers.
The predictive validity of the empathic accuracy measure received further support in a clinically relevant study in which perceivers tried to infer the thoughts and feelings of three female clients who each appeared in a separate videotaped psychotherapy session. The perceivers’ empathic scores were significantly greater at the end of the psychotherapy tapes than at the beginning, reflecting their greater acquaintance with the clients and their problems. In addition, perceivers who were randomly assigned to receive immediate feedback about the clients’ actual thoughts and feelings during the middle portion of each tape should subsequently achieve better empathic accuracy scores by the end of the tape than perceivers who did not receive such feedback.
Establishing the convergent validity of the empathic accuracy measure has proven to be more difficult and complicated. Self-report measures of empathically relevant dispositions generally fail to predict performance on interpersonal accuracy/sensitivity tests, and this conclusion certainly applies to the performance measure of empathic accuracy. Accordingly, researchers have instead concentrated on establishing the predictive validity of the empathic accuracy measure.
Facts and Fictions about Everyday Mind Reading
In studies conducted during the past 2 decades, some beliefs about everyday mind reading have been 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.
Practical Applications of Empathic Accuracy
The research on empathic accuracy promises to have many practical applications, including the following:
- The screening and selection of potential counselors and therapists, physicians and caregivers, diplomats and negotiators, police and social workers, teachers, and salespersons
- Empathy training for people in all of these professions that can be tailored to the specific target group(s) they serve
- Empathy training for people with significant empathic deficits, such as abusive men and at-risk children and adolescents
- Mutual empathy training for those in various types of distressed relationships.
- Ickes, W. (2003). Everyday mind reading: Understanding what other people think and feel Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.