Listening to voices has been shown to be more effective than looking at facial expressions for understanding others' emotional states. Past psychological studies of emotional recognition focused on accurately reading emotions displayed in facial expressions. A new Yale University study shows that listening to emotions conveyed by the voice of a speaker leads to more accurate understanding of the others' true Emotional State. These results are surprising and groundbreaking.

Understand emotion better through listening

Michael Kraus of Yale University involved over 180,000 participants in five separate studies that combined looking at facial expressions with listening to voices as participants identified the true emotion being expressed by others' interactions.

Results were consistent across all five studies. Participants who listened only were on average consistently able to more accurately identify the other's emotion. The worst result consistently came when the voices listened to were computerized (computerization of voices strips them of human qualities, such as resonance and pitch).

Why listen when you can look at facial expression?

Kraus's study is important and significant for several reasons. It is the first to consider the role of voice expressiveness and listening receptivity in what is called emotional intelligence, or the ability to accurately know and understand another person's true emotional expression. Study results indicate that listening to what the voice says and how it says it is more effective for understanding emotion than looking at facial expressions.

Kraus suggests the study is important because it sheds light on how facial expressions might be manipulated to mask true emotions. The study sheds light on how multi-tasking simultaneous listening to emotion with looking at facial emotion might downgrade performance on both tasks.

Further, Kraus points out a significant implication of the study is that "listening matters" in personal and in work relationships.

If listening leads to a more accurate understanding of the other's emotions, then the implication is that we will want to find a way to listen with more perceptive attention.

Structure of the listen-and/or-look study

The five studies had two possible set-ups and four possible scenarios. Participants were engaged in one of two study set-ups wherein they:

  • interacted with someone to identify the other's emotions.
  • observed interactions between two people to identify the emotions presented.

In these set-ups, four scenarios were possible wherein some participants:

  • looked only at faces during emotional interactions.
  • listened only to voices during interactions.
  • listened to voices while looking at faces during interactions.
  • listened only to computerized voices having interactions.

The study is published by Michael W. Kraus under the title "Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy" in the journal American Psychologist.