THERE ARE THOSE OF US WHO GO WITH OUR GUT, and others who systematically weigh the evidence before making an inference. But which mode of thought serves as a more accurate emotional radar? 

A new research paper co-authored by Jennifer Lerner, professor of policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and Christine Ma-Kellams of the University of La Verne, yields new evidence that systematic thinking, as opposed to intuitive thinking, is more likely to produce a more empathically accurate result.  “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy” appears in the July 18 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

“Close relationship partners must discern whether a comment or facial expression is meant to be critical or innocent, negotiators need to gauge the likelihood of achieving an agreement, law enforcement officers must accurately infer the intent behind a stranger’s actions, and peacekeepers around the globe must put themselves ‘in the shoes’ of those they are trying to help in order to be successful,” the authors write. “To date, however, little is known about how intuitive versus systematic mode of thought relates to the special kind of accuracy involved in perceiving another’s feelings.”

Lerner and Ma-Kellams conducted four studies designed to examine the relationship between the two modes of thought and empathic accuracy. The first determined that most people believe that intuition is a better guide than systematic thinking to accurate infer other’s thoughts and feelings. The other three studies found that the opposite is actually true. 

“Importantly, three out of the four studies presented here relied on actual professionals and managers. By working with this sample, we demonstrated these effects in an externally valid way. This sample also represented a highly relevant group for which to test empathic accuracy, given the importance of empathic accuracy for a host of workplace outcomes, including negotiations,…worker satisfaction,…and workplace performance,” the authors write. 

Lerner and Ma-Kellams write that the findings have important implications for both theory and practice.

“Lay assumptions about what makes a good emotional mind-reader diverge from the empirical evidence shown in the present findings. Across very different contexts, from mock interviews to controlled environments where only limited facial cues are available, an effortful mode of thought is associated with empathic accuracy,” they conclude. “Thus, the many settings in which the value of intuition is extolled (e.g., job interviews) need to be assessed with a more nuanced perspective, since intuition in fact has limited value in certain aspects of social interaction.  On a larger scale, the many U.S. federal programs that assume intuition is valuable in national security settings may need to take a moderated approach, in light of the present evidence.”

For example, Lerner and Ma-Kellams point out that the Department of Homeland Security empowers its agents to search credentials at border crossings based on “intuition and hunch.” 

“To be sure, highly-experienced experts who have perceived a particular target numerous times have the ability to convert explicit, systematic thought into implicit, intuitive thought. This kind of intuition becomes useful when situational constraints necessitate rapid, experience-informed intuitive judgments,” Lerner writes.  “Fire fighters who predict the direction a fire will move represent an excellent example.  But in routine work settings among professionals, like job interviews and negotiations, systematic thought will outperform intuition.”

Jennifer Lerner Photo

Jennifer Lerner

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Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Decision Science, and Management
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