For some things, such as deciding whether to take a new job or nab your opponent's rook in chess, you're better off thinking long and hard. For others, such as judging your interviewer's or opponent's emotional reactions, first instincts are best—or so traditional wisdom suggests. But new research finds that careful reflection actually makes us better at assessing others' feelings. The findings could improve how we deal with bosses, spouses, friends and, especially, strangers.

We would have trouble getting through the day or even a conversation if we couldn't tell how other people were feeling. And yet this ability, called empathic accuracy, eludes introspection. “We don't think too hard about the exact processes we engage in when we do it,” says Christine Ma-Kellams, a psychologist at the University of La Verne in California, “and we don't necessarily know how accurate we are.”

Recently Ma-Kellams and Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University conducted four studies, all published in 2016. In one experiment, participants imagined coaching an employee for a particular job. When told to help the employee get better at reading others' emotions, most people recommended thinking “in an intuitive and instinctive way” as opposed to “in an analytic and systematic way.” When told to make employees worse at the task, the participants recommended the opposite. And yet later experiments suggested this coaching was off base.

For instance, in another experiment, professionals in an executive-education program took a “cognitive reflection test” to measure how much they relied on intuitive versus systematic thinking. The most reflective thinkers were most accurate at interpreting their partners' moods during mock interviews. Systematic thinkers also outperformed intuiters at guessing the emotions expressed in photographs of eyes.

To test for causality, the researchers asked another group of professionals to recall a time when following their instincts paid off—or a time when careful reasoning did—to induce one mode of thought or the other. As predicted, when judging a partner's moods in a mock interview that followed this exercise, individuals primed to reason carefully were more accurate.

Then why do we prize snap impressions of others? “All of us seem to be able to read people on some level,” Ma-Kellams says, “so I think it looks a lot easier than it actually is.” To judge a person's emotions accurately, we need to take into account context, subtle expressions, personal history and our own biases. Ma-Kellams and her colleagues are now looking into whether intuitive thinking may offer benefits in certain circumstances, such as when you know someone well. But when deciphering other people, especially strangers, Ma-Kellams advises that we “be really wary of our gut instincts and think more critically and effortfully about what this other person is going through before we jump to conclusions.” —Matthew Hutson


Emojis: Lost in Translation?

Apple, Microsoft, LG, Google, and Samsung versions of the "grinning face with smiling eyes" emoji. Credit: From “‘Blissfully Happy’ or ‘Ready to Fight’: Varying Interpretations of Emoji,” by Hannah Miller et al., in Proceedings of the Tenth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, Cologne, Germany, May 17–20, 2016. Published by AAAI Press.

Emojis are a universal language, right? Not necessarily. Operating systems display the same typed characters differently, so what looks like a happy grin to Nexus users (bottom left) shows up as a grimace to their iPhone-using correspondents (top left). Yet there is even variation in how people interpret emojis on the same platform: in a 2016 study, researchers at the University of Minnesota found confusion is rife, especially surrounding the “grinning face with smiling eyes” (all five images). Asked to rate the emotion portrayed by the Apple version on a 10-point scale from very negative to very positive, subjects were all over the map. Sender and receiver, on average, differed by almost two points. —Veronique Greenwood