If you want to really understand how someone is feeling it's better to listen to them without looking according to new US research, which found that we read others emotions more accurately when using only vocal cues.
Michael Kraus, PhD, of Yale University, carried out a series of five experiments which together involved more than 1,800 participants.
In each experiment, the participants were asked either to interact with another person, or watch an interaction between two others.
There were four experiment conditions for the interactions; in one participants were only able to listen and not look; in another they were able to look but not listen; and in the third participants were allowed to both look and listen.
In another group, participants listened to a computerized voice reading a transcript of an interaction -- a condition without the usual emotional inflection of human communication.
Kraus found that in all of the experiments, participants who only listened without looking were able, on average, to identify more accurately the emotions being experienced by others.
The one exception was perhaps unsurprisingly when participants listened to computerized voices and not human voices, which resulted in the worst accuracy of all.
Kraus now believes that the findings could open a new area of research into emotional recognition, after most previous studies have focused mainly on the role of facial cues.
"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 proposes two explanations for why listening only could be a better way of reading emotions than using both cues together, suggesting that one is that we have more practice using facial expressions to hide emotions, meaning facial cues are not always as accurate as we think.
The second is that more information is not always better for accuracy, and engaging in two complex tasks simultaneously -- in this case watching and listening -- could actually reduce a person's performance on both tasks.
"Listening matters," concluded 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 findings can be found published online in the American Psychological Association's flagship journal, American Psychologist.