Want to be a good friend? Close your eyes and listen

New research suggests that simply listening to someone talk, while not even looking at them, could increase "empathic accuracy."

The new study was carried out by Michael Kraus, Ph.D., of Yale University in New Haven, CT.

Dr. Kraus started from the hypothesis that communicating using only our voice and ability to listen, without engaging any other senses, might make it easier for interlocutors to recognize each other's emotions.

The research suggests that listening alone, and with your eyes closed, enhances "empathic accuracy" — which is defined as the "ability to judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of other individuals."

To test this hypothesis, Dr. Kraus devised a set of five experiments, and now, the findings have been published in the journal American Psychologist.

Listening and empathic accuracy

The experiments involved almost 1,800 participants who were at least 18 years old. In all five experiments, Dr. Kraus tested the empathic accuracy of the participants, comparing it across "voice-only, visual-only, or combined voice and visual communication" scenarios.

In one of the experiments, participants were exposed to a recorded scenario wherein two women were teasing each other. Teasing was chosen because it elicits a mixed range of emotions.

The participants, referred to as "perceivers," were invited to estimate the feelings of the parties involved in the dialogue. They were given a range of emotions and asked to rate how much of those emotions they thought the individuals experienced.

Perceivers used a nine-point scale — ranging from "not at all" to "a great deal" — and they saw the video together with the audio, saw only the video, or heard only the audio.

In another experiment, the perceivers attended a live interaction. Voice-only or all-senses communication was achieved by switching the light on and off in the room.

On average, in all five experiments, people who listened without visually observing identified the emotions most accurately.

Dr. Kraus comments on the findings, saying, "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," he continues, "in the presence of both will and skill, people often inaccurately perceive others' emotions."

Vocalizations of emotion may be enough

"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," Dr. Kraus adds.

He speculates that one of the reasons for the findings might be that it is more difficult to mask vocal cues compared with visual ones. Studies have shown, Dr. Kraus explains, that when we wish to mask our internal states, we use facial and nonverbal cues, rather than verbal ones.

Another reason might have to do with multitasking. Trying to do multiple things at once has been shown to decrease performance, and the same might be true when it comes to listening and watching.

"I think," Dr. Kraus concludes, "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."

"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."

Michael Kraus, Ph.D.