Reading the mind reader
Professor's research on empathic accuracy has garnered local and national recognition
by Donna Darovich
Women don't necessarily have better intuition than men. But they do try harder. And abusive husbands have a general bias against all women, not just their wives.
These are two of the findings of psychology Professor William Ickes, who has been credited with revolutionizing the study of empathic accuracy-the everyday mind reading that people do when they look beyond the words and actions of others to grasp their true feelings.
Psychology Professor William Ickes says the ability to read other people's feelings can be measured as reliably as IQ scores, and he has developed an innovative technique for doing so.
Some of the findings from his research are cited because they debunk popular myths. For example, over a series of 15 studies, Dr. Ickes and colleagues Tiffany Graham and Randy Gesn found that women, on average, do not have greater empathic ability than men. So what might account for the popular stereotype of "women's intuition"? The evidence suggests that women simply try harder than men and can achieve better empathic accuracy through their greater motivation.
Dr. Ickes' research has also challenged the belief that "better understanding" will keep couples together. He has found important exceptions, noting that "there are danger zones in any close relationship, situations where the couple are better off avoiding 'too much' understanding if they want to keep the relationship intact."
One of Dr. Ickes' studies, conducted in collaboration with Jeffry Simpson at Texas A&M University, showed that too much understanding about danger-zone issues can scuttle a dating relationship. The study earned him and Dr. Simpson the New Contribution Award, the most prestigious honor given by the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships.
Based on these and related results, the researchers now believe that the happiest couples are not necessarily those who are the most accurate in assessing each other's feelings, but those who know when to act on a worrisome perception and when to ignore it. An example might be catching your partner stealing a glance at an attractive person. Do you assume your partner desires that person, or do you decide that you're better off not knowing?
Other findings from the empathic accuracy research have implications for social problems. In studies with colleague William Schweinle, Dr. Ickes found that abusive husbands have a general bias against all women, thinking they are more critical of men than they really are. The studies showed that the greater the bias, the more the men reported abusing their own female partners.
"Abusive men are thin-skinned and hypersensitive," said Dr. Ickes, who last spring received UTA's Distinguished Record of Research Achievement Award, the University's highest award for sustained research excellence. "The generality of their bias is important, because it means that the 'problem' can be found in the minds of abusive men, and not in the behavior of their female partners. There is usually no reason at all to 'blame the victim' in cases like this."
Dr. Ickes says other people's feelings can be read as reliably as IQ scores. He has developed an innovative technique for measuring empathic accuracy. The technique is described in his 1997 book, Empathic Accuracy.
He has been involved in social interaction research (the study of "everything two people do when they interact together") for more than 25 years. Much of his research is conducted in the UTA Social Interaction Lab, a labyrinth of rooms in the Life Science Building that permits the systematic observation and the recording of interactions between research subjects. His subjects often are UTA students who earn class credit for volunteering (and sometimes monetary rewards in grant-sponsored research).
One of his current projects, conducted in collaboration with Amy Waldrip and Renee Holloway, is a study that compares inter-ethnic with intra-ethnic interactions. Introductory psychology students who are Anglo, Latino and African-American are videotaped during their initial interactions with same-sex partners who come from either the same ethnic group or from a different one. "We want to know if people who come from different cultural backgrounds find it more difficult to understand each other," Dr. Ickes said.
He believes that there are no quintessential mind readers, "no empathic superstars," only those who can simulate this ability on stage, like the Amazing Kreskin.
But when the world does look for a superstar research
psychologist, it may well look no further than the UTA Social Interaction
Lab and its director, William Ickes.