Can married couples really read each other's minds?

Empathic inference is a form of complex psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge and reasoning combine to yield insights into the subjective experience of others.

Professor William Ickes, a recipient of The University of Texas at Arlington’s highest award for sustained research excellence, has studied social interaction for more than 25 years and empathic accuracy, or “everyday mind reading,” since 1986. Along the way, he and his colleagues have discovered objective, scientific answers to a number of age-old questions.

Is women’s intuition reality or myth? Are long-married couples better than newlyweds at anticipating each other’s feelings? Why are some people highly skilled at inferring a partner’s thoughts, while other people are clueless?

Dr. Ickes and his colleagues developed a procedure for determining how well people “read” minds, a measure he calls as reliable as IQ scores. The technique, described in his 2003 book Everyday Mind Reading, brings research participants into the UT Arlington Social Interaction Laboratory to assess how well they ascertain the thoughts of strangers, friends, dating partners, marriage partners and others, depending on which kind of interaction is of interest.

Sixteen years worth of this laboratory research has resulted in solid insights into how and why people succeed or fail in their attempts to understand each other. Ickes and his colleagues have found, for example, that the failure of dating partners to understand each other may in some cases be the product of “motivated inaccuracy.” If what one partner is thinking threatens the relationship, the other partner’s perception is likely to be less accurate.

“It’s a defense mechanism,” Ickes said, suggesting that the happiest couples are probably not those who can read each other’s feelings the best, but rather those who know when to get into the other person’s head and when to stay out.

The research that Ickes and his team have conducted challenges the stereotype of women’s intuition.

“On average, women as a group do not have greater empathic ability than men,” he said. “However, the evidence suggests that women often try harder than men and can achieve better empathic accuracy because of their greater motivation.”

Recent research also has examined the empathic accuracy of abusive husbands.

“We have found that such men are biased to infer that women are having more critical and rejection thoughts and feelings about their male partners than the women are actually having. This bias impairs the empathic accuracy of maritally abusive men and, in their minds, at least, helps them justify the abuse.”

The knowledge developed on everyday mind reading can apply to improving parenting skills, the effectiveness of counseling, and even sales and marketing, said doctoral candidate and lab manager Renee Holloway, who came from California to study with Ickes.

Holloway said Ickes is internationally renowned in his field and allows his students the intellectual freedom to chart their own course, whether in academia or, as she plans, the corporate world.

— Sue Stevens