In table tennis matches, marital spats and job negotiations, you are advised to get inside the other person's head. But that can mean one of two things: to cognitively take that person's perspective or to emotionally empathize. New research reported in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores these two approaches and shows that there is a time and a place for each.

In a complex war game, players decided in each round whether to disarm or attack. The game models any ongoing relationship with conflicting goals, including “a lot of work life, really,” says the paper's lead author, Debra Gilin of Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia. Subjects who scored higher on a perspective-taking scale—those who typically try to see the other side of an argument—fared well. But those high in empathy—who feel another's pain acutely—suffered for their soft-heartedness.

In a second experiment, undergraduates interacted in groups of three, then secretly picked a partner for a moneymaking round; the goal was a mutual match. In this coalition-building task—modeling real-life networking or relational disputes—empathy paid off more than perspective taking. In a third experiment, using the same setup as the second, researchers instructed the volunteers to focus on empathy rather than perspective taking, which made them more emotionally responsive and doubled their chances of a match.

“What I'm very excited about with this work is the inherent trainability of each of these mental activities,” Gilin says—no matter what your natural tendencies, you can choose to wield the mind-set the situation calls for. She emphasizes, however, that in many complex interactions, you are better off using your head and your heart.