New research suggests that if you want to know how someone is feeling, it might be better to close your eyes and use your ears.
Yale University investigators have discovered people are better able to detect others’ emotions when they listen and do not look at the person.
“Social and biological sciences over the years have demonstrated the profound desire of individuals to connect with others and the array of skills people possess to discern emotions or intentions. But, in the presence of both will and skill, people often inaccurately perceive others’ emotions,” said author Michael Kraus, Ph.D.
“Our research suggests that relying on a combination of vocal and facial cues, or solely facial cues, may not be the best strategy for accurately recognizing the emotions or intentions of others.”
In the study, which appears in the journal American Psychologist, Kraus describes a series of experiments involving more than 1,800 participants from the United States.
In each experiment, individuals were asked either to interact with another person or were presented with an interaction between two others. The novel experimental design included:
- in some cases, participants were only able to listen and not look;
- in others, they were able to look but not listen;
- in one group, some participants were allowed to both look and listen;
- in one case, participants listened to a computerized voice reading a transcript of an interaction — a condition without the usual emotional inflection of human communication.
Across the experiments, individuals who only listened without observing were able, on average, to identify more accurately the emotions being experienced by others.
The one exception was when subjects listened to the computerized voices, which resulted in the worst accuracy of all.
The new research fills a void as much of the research on emotional recognition has focused on the role of facial cues. As such, these findings open a new area for research, explains Kraus.
“I think when examining these findings relative to how psychologists have studied emotion, these results might be surprising. Many tests of emotional intelligence rely on accurate perceptions of faces,” he said.
“What we find here is that perhaps people are paying too much attention to the face — the voice might have much of the content necessary to perceive others’ internal states accurately. The findings suggest that we should be focusing more on studying vocalizations of emotion.”
Kraus believes that there are two possible reasons why voice-only is superior to combined communication.
One is that we have more practice using facial expressions to mask emotions. The other is that more information (quasi multi-tasking) is not always better for accuracy.
In the world of cognitive psychology, engaging in two complex tasks simultaneously (i.e., watching and listening) hurts a person’s performance on both tasks.
One implication of this research is simple, according to Kraus.
“Listening matters,” he said.
“Actually considering what people are saying and the ways in which they say it can, I believe, lead to improved understanding of others at work or in your personal relationships.”