Eavesdropping: A Superpower for Understanding Others’ Minds | Psychology Today

By: Alison Jane Martingano Ph.D., UW-Green Bay Psychology

New research shows that listening to others improves social cognition.


  • 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.

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Source: Eavesdropping: A Superpower for Understanding Others’ Minds | Psychology Today

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