The notion of mind reading conjures images of psychic powers, crystal balls and other aspects of the paranormal.
So it may seem surprising that for over two decades, psychologists and communication scholars have been seriously studying the degree to which a person is able to correctly understand another’s unsaid thoughts or feelings. This is called empathic accuracy, and not only is it real, it has important implications for our relationships.
Research suggests empathic accuracy buffers against aggression in couples and inhibits acting out in destructive ways in romantic relationships. Empathic accuracy is also linked to relationship commitment, being supportive of one’s romantic partner, experiencing relationship closeness, and couple wellbeing.
Recent research has also shown that people who report high empathic accuracy are able to better detect whether someone is telling the truth or not.
Based on all this, one may conclude being empathically accurate is generally a good thing. But some research has found empathic accuracy is also associated with negative outcomes, such as reductions in relationship closeness. Basically, it depends on the situation.
When it’s good
There are a number of situations in which empathic accuracy is good for relationships. One is when romantic partners have to co-ordinate their behaviours (engage in teamwork, so to speak) to achieve important goals.
For example, if a couple is saving money for a holiday, empathic accuracy can help each person understand why their partner may be working overtime rather than spending time with them. It is also helpful in anticipating and avoiding conflicts, and in resolving small problems before they become big relationship concerns.
For instance, if a person knows what they said made their partner think and feel less valued, they may provide an apology before the partner becomes overly hurt or upset by their remarks.
Empathic accuracy plays an important role in detecting and attending to the needs of relationship partners.
It also helps relationship functioning by putting a partner’s “bad behaviour” (such as being short with one’s words or seeming cranky) into perspective by understanding why they behaved in a negative way. This in turn allows them to constructively deal with it.
When empathy is a disaster
Empathic accuracy is bad in situations that threaten the quality or goodness of a relationship. In fact, in situations of relationship threat or distress, people fare better when they are less empathically accurate.
It’s as if dialing down empathic accuracy buffers against feeling worse in threatening situations. According to researchers in this field, there are five types of threatening relationship situations in which being less empathically accurate may be beneficial.
The first is when couples are faced with irreconcilable differences, but wish to stay together. In these instances, if they accurately perceive their partner’s values or beliefs as different from their own, the result could be serious emotional turmoil about whether they should stay or continue the relationship.
Then there’s the risk a person will not view their partner positively (the rose-coloured glasses come off). Another threatening situation is uncovering unpleasant truths about your partner. For example you may be in a happy and committed relationship but find out your partner loves you less than you love them.
The fourth is that someone who knows another’s thoughts and feelings can use this knowledge to manipulate or control them; and the fifth is that a person could want to know so much about their partner that it can be seen as an intrusion of privacy.
In the above situations, empathic inaccuracy may act as a protective mechanism. People appear to be motivated to be more or less emphatically accurate as a function of the situations they find themselves in.
Research supports this claim, with studies finding in situations when the thoughts and feelings of one’s partner may threaten the goodness of the relationship we are motivated to be less empathically accurate. The flip side is true when a partner’s feelings or thoughts are non-relationship threatening.
Another important factor associated with the benefits and pitfalls of empathic accuracy is empathic concern, which is having compassion about what a person is experiencing.
Recent research notes empathic concern may be an important mechanism for how empathic accuracy influences how caring and supportive people are of their partners. That is, in situations where a person needs to help their partner, it is not enough to be able to read a partner’s mind.
It is also important that people care enough about their partner’s feelings and thoughts to provide effective support.
Research into empathic accuracy in romantic relationships highlights that being in a good relationship requires partners be skilful in how they go about inferring the thoughts and emotions of their partners, as well as knowing when to do so.
What does this mean for people who lack such mind-reading skills? Research into empathic accuracy is now being applied in therapeutic contexts. Here clients and therapists are coached through video-playback of interactions with others on how to enhance their empathic accuracy.
So, next time you’re in the presence of a loved one, ask yourself: “can I read my partner’s mind?” Or better still, “is it the right time to read their mind?” If not, maybe read a book instead.
This piece was first published in The conversation. It has been reprinted with permission.