When it comes to understanding how another person thinks and feels, it might be best to close your eyes and listen.
A study by an American psychologist suggests that people are better able to pick up on the emotions of others when simply focusing on their voice, compared to both watching and listening to them, or just watching them.
“Humans are actually remarkably good at using many of their senses for conveying emotions, but emotion research historically is focused almost exclusively on the facial expressions,” said Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale University and author of the study.
While combining information from a person’s voice with their facial expressions and other cues might at first seem like a way to boost understanding of their thoughts and feelings, Kraus says pooling the senses divides attention.
What’s more, he notes, facial expressions can mask a person’s true feelings – something that he says is harder to do with the voice – while language plays a key role in how people understand and label their emotions. The upshot, he says, is that what people say, and the way they say it, offers the clearest insights into the emotions of others.
“Listening matters,” said Kraus. “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.”
The study, published in the journal American Psychologist, describes a series of five experiments involving more than 1,770 individuals, in which participants were asked to rate how another person felt using a series of scales reflecting different emotions.
Among the experiments, 266 strangers were paired up and asked to discuss film and TV then food and drink in both a lighted room and a room with the lights off. In each case, participants then rated their own emotions and those of their partner on a series of scales.
The results revealed that participants were better able to accurately estimate their partner’s feelings when the lights were off.
In another, almost 600 participants recruited online were each shown a video of three women taking part in the experiment above in one of three scenarios: the lighted-room conversation, a night-vision video of the dark-room conversation and a sound-only recording of the dark-room conversation.
The results showed that viewers were best able to assess women’s emotions in the sound-only recording.
Professor Sophie Scott, head of the speech communication group at University College London, agreed that people are often better able to control their facial expression than their voice when emotional – and that, in some cases, voices and visuals can tell a different story.
But while she said the results from the latest study were very interesting, they were far from dramatic. “The effect sizes are tiny,” said Scott. “It could be that these [other cues] are making a difference – but it is perhaps not an enormous difference.” But, she noted, it might be that the studies did not provoke much emotional variation among those taking part.
Scott added that the importance of the voice may not apply to everyone, noting that other research has shown that when understanding of speech is impaired, people develop an enhanced ability to pick up on the facial cues of others.
Kraus agreed. “I actually think that people with hearing problems must be particularly adept at parsing the facial and nonverbal expressions of emotion,” he said.
Ray Wilkinson, professor of human communication at the University of Sheffield, said that the study was interesting, but noted that the findings were based on experimental situations that might not reflect “real life” interactions and added that, while the content of a person’s speech is, unsurprisingly, important, other research has found that gestures can help to get a point across.
“The findings are little bit surprising in that what we know generally about human communication is that it is multi-modal – it is not just verbal,” he said. “Gesture and facial expression are also important for communication and add a lot to the overall meaning.”
While Wilkinson notes the situation might be different for emotions, he adds that the idea of the “true” message is problematic. While verbal and facial cues might offer a different message, “that can be part of what we are wanting to convey,” he said. “It depends what we mean by the ‘real message’ or what what the ‘real’ emotion is – that in itself can be a rather slippery concept.”