Lots of people might argue otherwise, but empathy is not an intuitive process. Intuition is defined as the ability to perceive the truth, independent of any reasoning. Note that the key phrase is “independent of any reasoning.” Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, relies on listening and observation and being able to process the information gathered with rational thought, which is also known as systematic thinking.


And here’s the science to support it: Christine Ma-Kellams (from the University of La Verne) and Jennifer Lerner (from Harvard) recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy.” For this study, they compared two modes of thought: intuitive thinking (going with your gut, what feels right) and systematic thinking (carefully analyzing the information available).

The psychologists performed four studies with 900 participants. The first study showed that most people believe that intuition is superior to systematic thinking to deduce another person’s thoughts and feelings accurately. But their following three studies demonstrated that this belief is, in fact, not true. Across all three studies—which were both correlational and experimental—the researchers observed that systematic thinking ended up being a more accurate way to read the feelings of others.

What does the difference between intuition and empathy feel like? How do you know when you’re relying on intuition instead of systematic thinking? Some parts of the studies included a cognitive reflection test with basic math questions that have answers that are intuitively tempting, but demand systematic thinking to answer correctly. For example, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive answer is 10 cents. (That answer feels right. Doesn’t it?) But the correct answer is 5 cents. Choosing the reflexive answer (without thinking it through with reason) is what it feels like to make an intuitive decision.

Although it runs counter to conventional wisdom, think carefully to process the information you observe and hear in order to interact with empathy. Gut feelings simply aren’t as accurate as systematic thinking.