Now You Have My Attention: Empathic Accuracy Pathways in Couples and the Role of Conflict

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Recent research on empathy finds evidence for 2 different pathways that enable individuals to accurately infer other persons’ inner mental states: an automatic, indirect pathway that operates by having a mental state similar to the target’s and (correctly) assuming that this state is similar to the target’s, and a more controlled direct pathway that involves assessing the target’s mental state with no regard for one’s own. We present 3 daily diary studies (N = 53, 38 and 80 couples) examining the contribution of these pathways to empathic accuracy in daily assessments of romantic partners’ negative moods, and examine the effects of gender and relational conflict on these pathways. Our studies revealed that both pathways consistently contributed to accuracy. Additionally, partners demonstrated greater indirect accuracy on conflict (vs. nonconflict) days, and indirect accuracy was somewhat higher for women than for men on conflict days (with the opposite pattern on nonconflict days). More importantly, we found evidence for a novel third pathway, in which the perception of conflict itself led to (correct) higher estimation of negative affect and thus, to higher accuracy. This pathway figured more consistently for men than for women. In our discussion, we link the pathways obtained in these studies to the extant social neuroscientific literature on empathy systems, arguing that the indirect pathway involves the effects of experience sharing, while the direct and conflict-based pathways involve the mental state attributions (Zaki & Ochsner, 2011). These findings demonstrate the importance of examining various empathic pathways for the understanding of empathic processes.

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