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Character  &  Context

Thinking and Feeling In Judging Others

By Alexander Danvers

You’re interviewing a stranger for a job, and while you have “the facts” about their previous job history in front of you, what you’re not sure about is their emotional state. Are they anxious? Excited? Bored?

You think knowing what this job candidate is feeling might help you better know what kind of person she is, but you don’t know how to figure out what those feelings are. Do you try to think through the possible causes of her emotions, making predictions based on your logical analysis? Or do you just “trust your gut” and try to intuitively sense how she is feeling?

If you are like a participant in the first study of Ma-Kellems and Lerner’s new paper “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy”, you’re likely to choose intuition.

Ma-Kellems and Lerner first study presents data affirming the lay theory most of us hold about feelings: they are the realm of the non-rational. Understanding them must require a non-rational thought process.

Yet in three further studies, the research team demonstrates that those who engage in careful, systematic thought tend to do better at judging what another person is feeling.

In Study 2 of the paper, students in the Harvard executive education program conducted mock job interviews with each other and then reported their own emotions—and their judgments of their partners’ emotions—during the task. They also completed the brief Cognitive Reflection Task (CRT), a set of three logic puzzles that have an intuitive—but wrong—answer, and therefore require overriding intuition to solve.

Performance on the CRT was related to accurate judgment of feelings, suggesting that individuals better able to override intuition were also better able to perceive their partner’s mood.

Study 3 used a simplified procedure to collect a much larger sample of Harvard executive program students. Instead of having individuals conduct full interviews, they had them complete the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”—a measure of empathy used in previous studies where individuals are asked to judge a target’s emotion based just on a picture of their eyes.

Performance on the CRT was again related to accurate identification of feeling, confirming that those who were able to override intuition were better able to perceive a stranger’s mood.

Finally, Study 4 attempted to induce intuitive or analytic thought by having participants randomly assigned to a condition where they were asked to write about a time intuition improved their decision-making—or a time when careful, systemic thinking did. Used in previous studies, this manipulation appeared to shift participants’ thinking styles, based on coding of the complexity of language used by participants in each condition.

After the manipulation, participants again completed mock interviews, and again rated their own—and their partner’s—mood.

Further reinforcing their previous findings, those in the systemic thought condition were more accurate than those in the intuitive thought condition.

Taken as a whole, this package of studies suggests that having feelings—which we perceive as emerging spontaneously, without careful reasoning—is different from judging feelings. Judgments about feelings might involve consideration of factors that are not intuitive, such as how they are different from you or what situation might have preceded this one.

At a broader level, this research addresses questions about different styles of thinking. Dual system models of thought suggest that individuals typically use either a rapid, emotional, intuitive process or a slower, deliberative, reasoned process (these processes give the title to Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Yet this research—and newer conceptions of empathic accuracy, such as Zaki’s theory of cue integration—suggest that understanding others might require the interaction of multiple processes. This research helps make the case that feelings are not just the domain of intuition—they are also the domain of reason.


Alexander Danvers is a PhD student in social psychology at Arizona State University. His research interests include emotion and social interaction, which he approaches from dynamic systems and evolutionary perspectives.

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