Empathic Accuracy, Happiness, and Hypomania Risk

with Hillary Devlin (Yale), Jamil Zaki, June Gruber (UC Boulder)
August 2013 -- July 2015
Stanford University

We have an effortless ability to empathize with others -- feeling what others are feeling. This ability is crucial for our social relationships and for our emotional health. In recent years, researchers have also actively examined the question of Empathic Accuracy: we often judge the mental and emotional states of those around us, but are these judgments accurate? (You can find more details on past projects on the Stanford Social Neuroscience lab webpage.)

A typical paradigm used to study Empathic Accuracy, as in Zaki, Bolger, and Ochsner (2008), goes as follows: people ("targets") are filmed while they disclose an emotional event. Following this, the targets watch their own videos, and give a second-by-second rating for how good or bad they feel (for example, using a slider below the video on the computer screen). This "target rating" provides the "gold standard". Next, other participants ("perceivers") are brought into the lab and asked to watch these videos, and rate how the target is feeling. Thus, we have a vector of ratings given by the target of their own emotions, and vectors of ratings given by perceivers for how the target feels. Empathic Accuracy is usually operationalized as the correspondence between these vectors (usually, a correlation).

Happy people and Empathic Accuracy

In more recent work, done in collaboration with Hillary Devlin (from Yale), Jamil Zaki, and June Gruber (now at UC Boulder), we examined empathic accuracy in happy people. Hillary led the project, and it's been making the rounds in the press and popular media. It was picked up by Forbes, Huffington Post, and a couple of other websites, including (my personal favorite), #13 on the front page of Reddit and #1 on r/Science with over 3700 upvotes.

In this study, we adopted the Empathic Accuracy paradigm described above. One new method that we introduced in this paper was to additionally look at changes in how people feel. That is, instead of just looking at the correlation between perceivers' ratings and targets' ratings, we also examined positive and negative changes in the ratings (that is, we took the first derivative of the ratings vector). This allowed us to examine when people are more sensitive or less sensitive to changes in someone's emotions.

  • First finding: Happier people rate themselves as being more empathatic, as compared to less happy people.
  • Second finding: Happier people are generally worse in judging the feelings of someone talking about an intense negative event.
  • Third finding: Happier people are more sensitive to positive changes in people talking about positive events.

Thus, we find that while happier people subjectively believe that they are better at empathy, they are in fact, worse (than less happy people) when judging the feelings of people who are feeling bad. At the same time, this is not all bad news: we also find some evidence that happy people are more sensitive to positive changes (what we call "up-shifts") in people's feelings as well.

Illustration of empathic accuracy

Illustration of empathic accuracy, and up and down shifts, and how we can dissociate overall accuracy from accuracy to changes. The figure is taken from Devlin, Zaki, Ong, and Gruber (2016).
This figure illustrates the second-by-second "how good is the target feeling" ratings given by two participants (top and bottom panels) compared against the ratings given by the target themself (center panel). First, notice that Participant ID25 (top) has high continous empathic accuracy (operationalized by simple correlation), as their online ratings tracked the target's ratings pretty well. However, Participant ID25's ratings did not capture the upshifts in the grey boxes. In contrast, Participant ID39 (bottom) captured all of the upshifts in the grey boxes (and exaggerated them!), and thus has high sensitivity to emotion upshifts, yet their continuous empathic accuracy is worse.

Hypomania Risk and Empathic Accuracy

We continued our investigations on empathic accuracy in people who might be at risk for mania (a clinical symptom of bipolar disorder). We examined people's self-reported hypomania risk (these are sub-clinical, i.e., these participants have not met the threshold for clinical diagnosis), and how that is associated with empathic accuracy.

  • First finding: People who reported greater hypomania risk tended to retrospectively overestimate the positive emotions of targets describing negative events.
  • Second finding: In the moment, people who report greater hypomania risk were more sensitive to positive up-shifts for targets describing positive events.

That is, for people who report greater hypomania risk, if we asked them for retrospective evaluations (after the fact), they tended to overestimate how positive a target would feel. But in the moment, they tended to be more sensitive to up-shifts as well!


Thus, in summary, we developed cool ways of looking not only at how accurate people are in second-by-second evaluations of a target's emotions, but also at their sensitivity to changes in the target's emotions. Here, we have only looked at happiness and hypomania risk, and correspondingly found interesting associations with sensitivity to positive changes in a target's emotions. I think that this is a very productive paradigm, and we are continually looking at more ways to extend such methods to do cool science!

For more information, check out our 2014 paper in PLOS One, and our 2016 paper in Cognitive Therapy and Research!

There is, as one might realize, an implicit assumption that targets are accurate in judging their own emotions.

Relevant Publications

Zaki, J., Bolger, N., & Ochsner, K. (2008). It takes two: The interpersonal nature of empathic accuracy. Psychological Science, 19(4), 399-404.
[ pdf ]

Devlin, H. C., Zaki., J., Ong, D. C., & Gruber, J. (2014). Not as Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance. PLOS ONE. 9(10), e110470.
[ pdf ] [ supporting data and materials ] [ journal website ]

Devlin, H. C., Zaki., J., Ong, D. C., & Gruber, J. (2016). Tracking the emotional highs, but missing the lows: Hypomania Risk is associated with positively biased empathic accuracy inference. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 40(1), 72-79.
[ pdf ] [ pre-journal-formatted version ] [ supporting data and materials ] [ journal website ]