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Should You Trust Your Gut When Judging Emotions?

Probably not, according to new research.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: designmilk/Flickr)

For perhaps the same weird reasons people trust sociopaths and support questionable presidential candidates, we humans are oddly fond of trusting our guts. Well, that might not be such a great idea: The same people more likely to go with intuition over rational thought are worse judges of others’ emotions, according to new research.

“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others—that is, to be empathically accurate,” psychologists Christine Ma-Kellams and Jennifer Lerner write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The best way to achieve that goal, however, is a little less clear. In particular, is it better to go with your intuition, or is it better to think and analyze and infer others’ feelings?

Before they delved into that question, Ma-Kellams and Lerner first wanted to find out what people thought they ought to do. In an online survey, they asked participants whether it was better to go with intuition or analytical thinking when trying to infer others’ emotions. Seventy-four percent chose intuition.

Is it better to go with your intuition, or is it better to think and analyze and infer others’ feelings?

But, of course, intuition is often wrong, especially when it’s intuition about intuition. In a second experiment, Ma-Kellams and Lerner told 72 Harvard University executive education students to sit down in pairs and chat for a few minutes. Afterwards, the students answered questions about their own mood—for example, how nervous were you?—as well as those of their partners.

They also answered a series of questions that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with emotions: math problems with “intuitively appealing but incorrect answers.” (Here’s a classic one: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does that bat cost? A surprisingly large number of people answer immediately that the bat costs $1.00. The correct answer is $1.05.) Questions like that turn out to be a good measure of how intuitively people think and how susceptible they are to some classic decision-making biases, Ma-Kellams and Lerner write.

Indeed, the researchers found that those more likely to get the math-quiz answers wrong were also more likely to misjudge their partners’ emotions, a result that held up after controlling for age, gender, education, and other factors.

In a follow-up experiment, Ma-Kellams and Lerner found they could even manipulate how well another group of students judged each others’ emotions, simply by asking them to write about a time when intuition or systematic thought led them in the right direction. Students’ judgments of others’ emotions were about twice as accurate in the systematic thinking condition than in the intuition condition.

“Lay assumptions about what makes a good emotional mind-reader diverge from the empirical evidence,” Ma-Kellams and Lerner write. “Across very different contexts … an effortful mode of thought is associated with empathic accuracy. Thus, the many settings in which the value of intuition is extolled (e.g., job interviews) may need to be assessed with a more nuanced perspective, if intuition in fact has limited value in certain aspects of social interaction.”