Imagine you are being mugged. What’s the best way to avoid injury? One key to survival in sticky situations is knowing how to “read” signals correctly. This way, you can work out how aggressive or desperate the assailant is and act accordingly.
This ability is called empathic accuracy. It’s an important aspect of social intelligence – the capacity to understand yourself and others in social contexts.
Empathic accuracy allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s not only about understanding what they’re feeling but why they feel that way.
A study carried out by psychologist William Ickes at the University of Texas in 2001 illustrates this concept. The set-up was simple. Two people were asked to attend a meeting. Their conversation in the waiting room was then filmed. At the end, the participants were asked to review the recording and say what they thought the other person had been thinking at key moments.
The experiment neatly demonstrated just how much empathic accuracy varies from person to person.
One woman, for example, couldn’t remember the name of a teacher she was talking about. Her conversation partner correctly guessed that she’d felt silly at that point. In another case, one woman zoned out of the conversation. Her partner assumed she’d been wondering if he was about to ask her out on a date. The truth? She was thinking about a play she’d recently seen!
As you can see, empathic accuracy is crucial when it comes to social interaction. Knowing how to interpret what others are thinking and feeling is essential if you want to respond appropriately.
But empathic accuracy isn’t just about working out the intentions of strangers – it’s also vital when it comes to more intimate relationships.
The work of Canadian social psychologist Victor Bissonette, for example, suggests that people who can recognize what their partners are thinking and feeling tend to have much happier relationships and stay together for a longer time.
That’s an insight backed up by the research of University of California psychologists Lewenson and Reuf. Their 1992 study shows that relationships tend to run into trouble when one partner recognizes that the other is feeling sad or anxious but can’t work out why.