It Is Hard to Read Minds without Words: Cues to Use to Achieve Empathic Accuracy

J Intell. 2021 May 17;9(2):27. doi: 10.3390/jintelligence9020027.


When faced with the task of trying to "read" a stranger's thoughts, what cues can perceivers use? We explore two predictors of empathic accuracy (the ability to accurately infer another person's thoughts): use of stereotypes about the target's group, and use of the target's own words. A sample of 326 White American undergraduate students were asked to infer the dynamic thoughts of Middle Eastern male targets, using Ickes' (Ickes et al. 1990) empathic accuracy paradigm. We predicted use of stereotypes would reduce empathic accuracy because the stereotypes would be negative and inaccurate. However, more stereotypical inferences about the target's thoughts actually predicted greater empathic accuracy, a pattern in line with past work on the role of stereotypes in empathic accuracy (Lewis et al. 2012), perhaps because the stereotypes of Middle Easterners (collected from a sample of 60 participants drawn from the same population) were less negative than expected. In addition, perceivers who inferred that the targets were thinking thoughts that more closely matched what the target was saying out loud were more empathically accurate. Despite the fact that words can be used intentionally to obscure what a target is thinking, they appear to be a useful cue to empathic accuracy, even in tricky contexts that cross cultural lines.

Keywords: empathic accuracy; intergroup understanding; interpersonal sensitivity.