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The Surprising Benefits of Eavesdropping

It can enhance vital theory-of-mind skills.

Key points

  • Eavesdropping may improve our theory of mind skills, which are crucial for social interaction.
  • In an experiment, eavesdroppers outperformed conversational participants on tests of theory of mind.
  • Frequent exposure to situations that demand listening may enhance social cognition over time.

Have you ever found yourself secretly listening in on a conversation? What if we told you that eavesdropping might actually be a surprising way to enhance your understanding of others' minds, also known as the theory of mind (ToM)? ToM is essential for cooperation and social interaction and has been a key factor in the evolutionary success of the human species.

While we are born with a natural predisposition for ToM, certain experiences like mindfulness meditation, exposure to metaphorical language, and reading literary fiction have been shown to enhance it. Conversations also demand that we consider others' thoughts and feelings, thus utilizing our ToM. But could eavesdroppers develop even better ToM skills than those actively participating in the conversation?

To answer this question, we assembled a diverse group of 86 New Yorkers, all strangers to each other, and assigned them roles as either interlocutors (grouped into matchers or directors) or eavesdroppers. After removing nine participants for failing to follow instructions, we had a final sample of 77 (53 interlocutors and 24 eavesdroppers).

The interlocutors, who were hidden from each other behind a screen, teamed up to solve a Tangram puzzle. The director verbally guided the matcher through arranging six Tangram figures into a grid while the pairs were encouraged to chat freely, ask clarifying questions, and describe the figures. Meanwhile, our eavesdroppers sat in another room, listening in on the conversation via live audio and working on the same puzzle without the opportunity to ask questions.

Source: Alison Jane Martingano / University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Tangram Task
Source: Alison Jane Martingano / University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Following the task, all participants completed two tests to measure their ToM abilities. The first task was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task, which asks participants to identify the emotion being expressed in 36 pictures of eyes. The second task was the False Belief Understanding task, which assesses understanding of second-order false beliefs through a short story scenario. Participants listened to a story in which a misunderstanding occurs between two protagonists, Richard and Ann. They were then asked why Richard had said a particular statement.

The results revealed that eavesdroppers outperformed the interlocutors on both ToM measures (although the results were only statistically significant for the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task). Eavesdroppers were able to identify more emotions from the pictures of eyes correctly and were more likely to understand what Richard was thinking compared to interlocutors. These results suggest that eavesdropping can indeed be beneficial for social cognition.

This discovery implies that individuals who often listen rather than contribute to conversations may develop better ToM abilities. Interestingly, people with less power—such as women—generally perform better on ToM tasks. Our findings hint that this difference could be due to being frequently exposed to situations that encourage women to listen but not contribute, thereby honing their ToM skills.

Future research could explore whether targeted interventions, like mindfulness training or active listening workshops, could measurably improve ToM abilities. It would also be interesting to investigate if professionals who rely on strong listening skills, like therapists, counselors, and mediators, consistently exhibit superior ToM abilities.

In conclusion, our study offers compelling evidence that eavesdropping or listening in on conversations may lead to improved ToM abilities. As our world becomes more interconnected, understanding and empathizing with others is more crucial than ever. Enhancing our ToM abilities through listening can help forge stronger social connections, promote cooperation, and foster a more empathetic world. So next time you find yourself eavesdropping, remember—you might just be exercising your hidden superpower.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Castano, E., Martingano, A. J., Basile, G., Bergen, E., & Jeong, E. H. K. (2023). Listening in to a Conversation Enhances Theory of Mind. Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, 100108.

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