It takes two: the interpersonal nature of empathic accuracy

Psychol Sci. 2008 Apr;19(4):399-404. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02099.x.


Although current theories suggest that affective empathy (perceivers' experience of social targets' emotions) should contribute to empathic accuracy (perceivers' ability to accurately assess targets' emotions), extant research has failed to consistently demonstrate a correspondence between them. We reasoned that prior null findings may be attributable to a failure to account for the fundamentally interpersonal nature of empathy, and tested the prediction that empathic accuracy may depend on both targets' tendency to express emotion and perceivers' tendency to empathically share that emotion. Using a continuous affect-rating paradigm, we found that perceivers' trait affective empathy was unrelated to empathic accuracy unless targets' trait expressivity was taken into account: Perceivers' trait affective empathy predicted accuracy only for expressive targets. These data suggest that perceivers' self-reported affective empathy can indeed predict their empathic accuracy, but only when targets' expressivity allows their thoughts and feelings to be read.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Surveys and Questionnaires