It seems intuitive that the best way to interpret how others are feeling would be to both see and hear how they’re behaving. However, a new study suggests that’s dead wrong.
Want to really understand how other people are feeling? Close your eyes and listen.
That’s the takeaway of a new study published in American Psychologist that explored the empathic accuracy of various forms of communication. The results are some of the first to demonstrate that the primary way we convey emotions may be through the voice – not facial expressions or body language, as previously thought.
“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, to The Guardian.
The paper detailed several experiments. In the first, researchers asked online participants to view videos showing a group of friends teasing each other about a nickname. Participants were presented the scene in one of three ways – audio only, audio and video, and video only – and were then asked to interpret what the friends were feeling by rating emotions like amusement, embarrassment, or happiness on a scale of 0 to 8. Surprisingly, those who only heard the interaction – but didn’t watch the video – were best able to interpret the emotions of the scene.
Another study involved undergraduate students gathering together in a room to discuss their favorite TV shows, movies, food and beverages. One group had the conversation in a lighted room, the other in a darkened room. Similar to the first experiment, people who were visually impaired in the darkened room more accurately interpreted the emotions of others.
Finally, the researchers took audio from the first experiment in which friends were teasing each other and had participants listen to one of two versions: the actual dialog from the friends, or a computerized voice reading the exact same words. Although you might expect to glean a similar amount of emotional information from the words alone, participants who interpreted the scene by listening to the digital voice fared far worse at interpreting emotions.
“The difference between emotional information in voice-only communication by a computer versus a human voice was the largest across all studies,” Kraus said to Yale Insights. “It’s really how you speak—not just what you say—that matters for conveying emotion.”
It seems intuitive that more information – both audio and visual – would better equip you to read the minds of other people, but the opposite seems true.
One explanation has to do with the limits of our cognitive power. When we’re taking in complex audio and visual input, it takes our brains more effort to process information. It’s similar to how a computer slows down when you have a bunch of different programs running simultaneously. Visual information is particularly costly to process, as Art Markman notes for Psychology Today:
Quite a bit of the brain is taken up with understanding what is going on in our sensory world. For example, if you clasp your hands behind your head, most of the area taken up by your hands reflects the amount of the brain that is devoted to making sense of the information coming in through your eyes.
These same brain regions are also responsible for recalling visual memory. And that could explain why people tend to shut their eyes when trying to recall details, or solve complex tasks in general. A 2011 paper published in the journal Memory & Cognition illustrates this idea quite nicely.
For the study, participants were instructed to watch a bit of a TV show, and later were asked to recall details about what occurred in the episode. The researchers separated participants into four groups, asking each to recall the show while they either: stared at a blank computer screen, closed their eyes, watched a computer screen as it randomly displayed nonsense images, or stared at a blank computer screen while they heard spoken words in a strange language.
Like the recent study, the groups that had received the least visual information – that is, they closed their eyes or stared at a blank computer screen – performed best. Interestingly, the group that stared at the screen displaying weird images fared worst at recalling visual details, while the group that heard random bits of a strange language did worst at recalling audio details from the show.
The other possible explanation has darker implications. People have a natural tendency to disguise their emotions, whether they’re doing something as benign as forcing a smile when you’re feeling down at work or something as malicious trying to manipulate someone into a shady business deal. Because our voices seem to be the primary way we communicate our emotions, the addition of visual cues like body language and facial expressions adds a whole toolset people can use to disguise their true emotions – a deliberately thoughtful tilt of the head, a raise of the eyebrows, or any of those body language hacks written up in countless articles ever since that one TED talk.
Either way, the researchers suggest people pay more attention to what others are saying and how they’re saying it.
“There’s an opportunity here to boost your listening skills to work more effectively across cultures and demographic characteristics,” Kraus said. “Understanding other people’s intentions is foundational to success in the global and diverse business environment that characterizes both the present and the future.”
The average amount of eye contact adults make is 30-60% per conversation, 60-70% if they feel invested.
In many countries and regions of the world, take East Asia for instance, looking someone in the eye is considered rude. If that person is above you on the social hierarchy, say a professor, parent, or boss, doing so can be considered defiant. In the West however, maintaining eye contact is a sign of respect and earnestness. Avoiding eye contact is thought to be for a reason, such as you are lying, anxious, socially awkward, guilty, or untrustworthy. Sometimes it even telegraphs boredom with the topic of discussion.
Adults make eye contact through 30-60% of a conversation, on average. Those who have a stake in it maintain eye contact 60-70% of the time. Now, a new study in the journal Cognition finds that those who occasionally have trouble maintaining eye contact do so merely because they’re cogitating.
Scientists at Kyoto University in Japan discovered that maintaining eye contact while processing what a person is saying is sometimes taxing on the brain. The brain finds it difficult to “share cognitive resources,” and so one breaks eye contact in order to better process what’s being said. The problem centers in the verbal processing portion of the brain. Here, both selection and retrieval of words occurs.
To understand the reason why face-to-face conversationalists sometimes break eye contact, researchers recruited 26 volunteers. Each was asked to play a word-association game which entailed staring into a series of faces projected on a computer screen. Some looked right at the person, while others looked away. Here when a noun was selected, say frisbee, a volunteer was asked to reply with a verb, say catch.
Sometimes volunteers maintained eye contact when playing the game. At other times, they looked away. Researchers were sure to pick both easy and hard associations. “Leaf” and “sky” were among the more difficult ones. Investigators noted how long it took for participants to respond and how often they broke eye contact. They took more time to respond to difficult questions, as one might imagine. But breaking eye contact shortened response time.
Researchers suggest that holding one’s gaze helps with bonding by heightening one’s connection to the other person. But it’s demanding on the brain. They wrote that when we look away, “we are trying to keep our brains from overloading.” Investigators say this helps us better understand how nonverbal communication interacts with the verbal kind. That’s important, as 85% of communication is nonverbal.
To learn some tips on how to make eye contact work for you, click here: