Not face
Listening more could help us when trying to understand the emotions of others. Istock

If you are trying to understand how someone is feeling, it might be easier if you simply close your eyes and listen. A new study, published in the journal American Psychologist, has found that people tend to read the emotions of others more accurately when they're not looking.

"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," said study author Michael Kraus, from Yale University.

"But, in the presence of both will and skill, people often inaccurately perceive others' emotions. 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."

The study involved a series of five experiments with more than 1,800 participants from the US. In each experiment, individuals were asked to interact with another person or were presented with an interaction between two others. Sometimes participants were only able to look and not listen; other times they were allowed to listen but not look; and in some cases, they were allowed to listen and look at the same time.

In one case, participants were asked to listen to a computerized voice reading a transcript of a real interaction between two people.

Overall, the researchers found that when individuals only listened without observing they were able, on average, to identify more accurately the emotions being experienced by others. The one exception was when they listened to the computerized voice, which resulted in the worst accuracy of all.

According to Kraus, most research into emotional recognition focuses on the role of facial cues, so this new study opens up new avenues for investigation.

"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 puts forward two reasons which could explain the greater accuracy of reading emotions through simply listening: The first, is that we are quite used to using facial expressions to mask our real emotions, whereas we are not so adept at hiding giveaways in our voices.

Secondly, having more information is not necessarily better for accuracy. Cognitive psychology research suggests that engaging in two complex tasks simultaneously - watching and listening for example - hampers a person's effectiveness in both tasks.

"Listening matters," Kraus adds. "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."