Empathy vs Empathic Accuracy … What’s the Difference?

HealthcareHigher EdPK-12Bullying PreventionMental HealthSEL

Empathy vs empathic accuracy … to-may-to to-mah-to? These terms can be confusing, but they are distinctly different and uniquely important. Empathy and empathic accuracy are both key techniques included in our approach, but there’s often confusion around these two terms. Let’s dive deeper into empathy vs empathic accuracy—what these terms mean, why they are different, and why they are both important in our conversation platform.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to feel the emotions of another being. Having empathy is to put aside your own, perhaps different viewpoint, in order to feel the emotions of someone else. This can be confused with sympathy, but empathy is more than just feeling sorry for someone. It requires you to see things through their perspective.

It’s a common misconception that empathy is just a personality trait; research has shown that empathy is a skill that can in fact be learned through training and intervention programs.

Here’s a look at how our simulations work to build and strengthen empathy skills.

You witness a student being bullied. You imagine what it would feel like if you were in their position, and can understand how painful it must be. You may demonstrate empathy by talking to the student, connecting with them by acknowledging their emotions, and then turn that empathy into action by connecting them to help or reporting the incident.

What is empathic accuracy?

Empathic accuracy, also sometimes described as “cognitive empathy”, is the ability to assess or identify the emotions of another. You can think of this skill as the ability to “read people.”

This can be important in social interactions, and is a reason people with autism spectrum disorders can face social difficulties—they struggle with empathic accuracy.

Empathic accuracy generally improves as a relationship develops, which makes sense. The better you know someone, the more perceptive you become of how they are feeling or what they might be thinking. Empathic accuracy also varies across individuals, and high empathic accuracy is predictive of healthy interpersonal relationships. Recent research has shown that, like empathy, empathic accuracy can be improved with training.

You walk into the room and your partner is standing and staring off. Their shoulders are slouched over and their eyes look dim. You have empathic accuracy when you see that something is bothering them, and you use that empathic accuracy to avoid immediately sharing with them that you just ate the best ice cream of your life. Instead, you inquire about their day.

Empathy vs empathic accuracy: how they are distinct

Empathy and empathic accuracy are conceptually distinct. Empathy does not necessarily imply the ability to accurately identify a shared emotion, and empathic accuracy does not necessarily require that one feel the emotions of another.

In one study, three groups of women watched video tapes of new mothers:

  • Women who had never been mothers
  • Women who were pregnant with their first child
  • Women who had just given birth to their first child

As you might guess, the women who had experienced the same life events as the new mothers felt greater empathy than the women who had never been mothers. However, whether or not a woman had been a mother had no bearing on their empathic accuracy. Even without understanding the situation, women were still able to identify the emotions of the moms in the videos.

Empathy vs empathic accuracy: how they are connected

Although they are distinct, research has shown a bidirectional relationship between empathy and empathic accuracy, as long as there is sufficient expression.

If you have empathy for someone, and they are expressive, then you are also likely to have strong empathic accuracy.

How we build empathy and empathic accuracy in our simulations

Both empathy and empathic accuracy are important for building connections and strengthening relationships.

In our evidence-based simulations, we give learners practice with empathic accuracy through emotionally-responsive virtual humans. Users may learn to spot warning signs to recognize that something may be wrong. For example, in At-Risk for Early Childhood Educators, users learn to identify signs that a behavior issue is actually a sign that a young child in their care may need support.

After recognizing there may be a concern, users may practice empathy by using the power of conversation to connect to the virtual human. Going back to the At-Risk for Early Childhood Educators example, learners practice connecting with a child to calm them down instead of resorting to harsh punishment. Using this lens of empathy can have a profound impact on outcomes.

When users can see the various reactions based on what they say, they begin to understand the power of their words and actions and the importance of both empathic accuracy and empathy.