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The manageability of empathic (in)accuracy during couples’ conflict: Relationship-protection or self-protection?

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The current study sought to expand upon research on motivated empathic (in)accuracy by testing assumptions underlying the empathic accuracy model, namely if a perceiver’s level of empathic accuracy is variable and might be associated with different outcomes depending the situation. More specifically, the model assumes that (a) the perception of threat in the thoughts/feelings of an interaction partner can result in a lower level of empathic accuracy, and (b) empathic accuracy can both improve and harm situational well-being on the personal and relationship level. These assumptions were tested in a laboratory-based study in which couples participated in a conflict interaction task and reported on their thought processes during a video-review task. All participants also completed a similar standard-stimulus task. A shift in participants’ motivation to be accurate to a motivation to be inaccurate in response to perceived threat could not be detected. Men’s higher levels of empathic accuracy for non-threatening feelings of their female partner were predictive of an increased feeling of closeness in men. Women’s higher levels of empathic accuracy for non-threatening feelings of the male partner were predictive for a better mood in women. A harmful effect of empathic accuracy for threatening thoughts/feelings on situational well-being was not found.

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  1. This term has been used instead of motivation-based empathic accuracy as some caution is recommended when using the term motivation. Although, the factors described in the model that affect the level of accuracy are defined as ‘motives’ (Ickes 2011), the assumptions stemming from the model are predominantly intuitive (because to date there has been little empirical verification of the full model) and the designated underlying motives only allow for implicit measurement. Furthermore, motivation is not merely a quantitative construct as some authors have stated that the quality or type of motivation is also important when drawing conclusions about the influence of motivation (Ryan and Deci 2000; Vansteenkiste et al. 2006), but these aspects of motivation are not included in the present study.

  2. “Non-threatening” versus “threatening” interactions are defined by “the degree to which the perceiver feels [not threatened versus] highly threatened by the consequences that would likely result from accurately inferring the partner’s thoughts/feelings” (Ickes and Simpson 1997, p. 235).

  3. The theoretical range of this percentage-correct accuracy measure was 0 (none of the possible accuracy points was earned) to 100 (all of the possible accuracy points were earned).

  4. All models fitted well (all CFI > 0.95, all RMSEA < 0.05 and all SRMR < 0.08), as well as the moderation models presented in the following section.


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This study was funded by Research Foundation - Flanders, Grant Number: 11Q9516N (first author).

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Correspondence to C. Hinnekens.

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All authors declare that he/she has no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent (written) was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Hinnekens, C., Loeys, T., De Schryver, M. et al. The manageability of empathic (in)accuracy during couples’ conflict: Relationship-protection or self-protection?. Motiv Emot 42, 403–418 (2018).

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