To Read Emotions, Listen

Hearing may be better than seeing when judging how someone feels.

By Cameron Evans, published January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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Faces can provide vital clues about a person's mood, but the most reliable way to "read" someone may simply be to listen to them, according to a new paper in the journal American Psychologist.

In a series of five experiments, Yale psychologist Michael Kraus tested participants' ability to evaluate someone's emotional state using different types of sensory information. In one experiment, participants in separate rooms used tablets to chat briefly, with the video on or off, then rated the degree to which they and their partner showed particular emotions during the interaction. Kraus's results showed that voice-only interactions led to more accurate perceptions than visual-only or multisensory versions.

One reason an isolated voice may be the truest signal of a person's inner experience, Kraus says, is that "perceiving the face and voice divides our attention between two channels. If those channels conflict, it creates noise in our perceptions and diminishes accuracy." Faces alone can be misleading: While we sometimes hide our emotions by feigning a smile or a straight face, the cues contained in our voices may be harder to mask.