Eavesdropping Actually Makes Us Better People

Eavesdropping is often stigmatized as something only “nosy” or “intrusive” people do. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

If you’ve taken mass transit, stood in a crowded cafe, or just been around strangers before, the chances are high that you’ve eavesdropped. If you say you haven’t, you’re lying. Eavesdropping, or the act of listening in on the conversations of those around us, is often stigmatized as something only “nosy” or “intrusive” people do. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Personally, I’m prone to straining my ears in order to hear a conversation several yards away. However, more often than not, eavesdropping isn’t an intentional choice or character flaw, but a habit that we’re wired for. For example, a paper in the journal Psychological Science showed that we find conversations like phone calls, where we hear only one side of the dialogue, more distracting than conversations between two people. This paper also concluded that less-predictable speech is more distracting for a listener. This may explain why we find the conversations of complete strangers, whose speech we can’t easily predict, so fascinating.

The origins of eavesdropping aren’t fully known. However, a study by the Society for Research in Child Development showed that children as young as age three are capable of listening in on the questions asked by their peers. They then strengthen this skill between ages three and five. Preschoolers are able to learn from the questions and instructions that they overhear from their peers, even when they’re engaged in other activities. Thus, a large part of our development and early education is made possible by our ability to listen in on other people’s conversations.

John Locke, a professor of language science, presents a strong case in defense of humans’ habit in his book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History. He recently spoke with Quartz to discuss how eavesdropping came about, how it was first stigmatized, and how we benefit from our nosiness.

Quartz: What are your findings concerning the evolution of eavesdropping?

Locke: It did evolve over time, but there was something there to start with. Monkeys generally are very watchful and not just by eye, but by ear. They recognize on some level that they need to know things that others are unlikely to want them to know. We can assume that the very earliest humans, or proto-humans, were like that as well. Even before there was any kind of housed living, before people lived behind walls, before there was much in the way of privacy, there were still lots of cases during a day in which people would recognize that the individuals around them were thinking things that they probably needed to know but were unlikely to know. And so, they were going to have to observe really carefully and try to determine what other people’s intentions were.

In a sense they were eavesdropping upon the individuals inside the people they saw, the individuals who had intentions and motives that they weren’t likely to disclose. They would’ve had that, and we still have that today, that sort of primal thing. We have regions in the brain, mechanisms in the brain that are designed to draw inferences from partial information that we see and hear and smell. We are pretty good sleuths. We’re natural sleuths.  

Why do we need this habit?

We live in extremely complicated social arrangements in which there are lots of people who are competing with us for the things that we want and they want. We have to be somewhat geared up to do eavesdropping. When people no longer needed to forge and follow the wild game, when they could actually have settlements—that’s when they began to build more permanent dwellings. And these were ones that were intriguing because the people on the inside thought that they were alone, but their homes were so flimsy that they weren’t truly alone. So you had this extraordinarily charged situation where people were saying and doing things with a new level of vulnerability. And others were tantalized by this. Beyond the personal titillation of observing people who didn’t know they were being surveilled, there was also a sense of outrage that people would go behind walls when the weather was okay and when there was no reason to be sheltered. In other words, [there was outrage] when they were using a house, or some kind of building, in their attempt to foil observation, rather than to seek physical comfort. This meant that whatever morality they had, it was suspended during those times. Because it’s what you know others can see that often keeps you from misbehaving.

That produced legislation; that produced court cases. And that’s why we have information. Even at a time when most people couldn’t read or write, they could talk. I’m thinking of England especially in the 1400s to 1500s. They were outraged often by what they saw and heard, of people taking liberties behind the walls. And so, they would report this and there was usually some legislation that was relevant to whatever they’d seen and heard, so that produced a court case and that produced eyewitness testimony. Interestingly, in England you had to have two eye witnesses in order to have a case. The courts were quite generous in their praise of those who had come forward to help the court prosecute a case, but eavesdropping was illegal.

But to look carefully at what happened during that period—they didn’t mind if you eavesdropped, what they didn’t like was when you blabbed about what you’d seen, because that produced a sort of brouhaha where by the local communities would be up in arms. That often led to various forms of civic punishment whereby the people of the town either dumped the evil-doers in local ponds, in what was called a “ducking stool” or else they would put them backwards on a horse and pull them through the town and this was called a “riding.” There were other names for it. It was popular in France as well. This was a way of shaming people that had done something wrong, and basically running them out of town.

But then, obviously, people shored up the walls and now in lots of places in the United States there are zoning laws that prevent a house from having windows facing into the windows of another house. We don’t really like people peeking. The laws of domestic privacy forbid you not just from entering the house of another person but from entering the property. So when people build hedges, or put up fences, they’re clearly defining the outer limits of how close you can get to the house and therefore them. Then there’s no way that you can put your ear to a crack or your eyes at a window, because you couldn’t even get near the house. Clearly there was a social history that influenced eavesdropping. Now you’ve got all kinds of electronic equipment that means that you don’t even have to be there in order to eavesdrop.

Do you think that with the rise of technology our ability to eavesdrop has improved?

A lot of people complain about cell phone conversations, that they don’t want to hear other conversations. I do think it’s interesting that if somebody’s talking quietly, people will tune in, but if they’re speaking loudly, they won’t. And the reason is that there’s a very basic law of nature being violated with loud or conspicuous displays of any kind of social behavior. It’s that we don’t like donations. We don’t like it when people present us with information about themselves that we’re not seeking. We don’t trust them. “They are self serving,” we think, and they often are.

We all have a persona, or a public personality, which is different from who we really are. People don’t want that. They want to know what you’re truly like inside, not what others want them to think. They do love what I call “intimacy by theft” which I think is the name of one of the chapters in [Eavesdropping: An Intimate History]. We love it when we get something that’s truly genuinely true about others and so we still prefer taking it, or if not taking it, extracting clues on our own.

Quartz: Is hacking eavesdropping?

[Hacking] is clearly eavesdropping. But, the motives are different. I mean, I originally wanted to give the book a subtitle and the one I had in mind was pretty informative: “Intimate experience, personal power, and social control.” Those are the three really major benefits of eavesdropping.

Intimate experience is the one that our ancestors and we today are seeking when we’re overhearing the conversation at the next table and so forth. But, personal power is what you get often when you have something on somebody; and from that, [you get] some kind of control. That’s exactly what’s going on right now with the Russian surveillance of American politics. That’s exactly what’s going on. People wonder, “what is it that the Russians have on President Trump?” Now they didn’t eavesdrop because they were titillated by his life, although we don’t know. But they certainly got personal power and possibly a great deal of control.

Could you speak to the psychological effects of the eavesdropper?

On one level, there absolutely must be, because there is no group of people in the world, no society that doesn’t do this, and that hasn’t been doing this for recorded history—even recorded art depicting people with an ear to the keyhole. It’s an extraordinarily strong motive. Some people do it all the time. Others claim that they don’t do it, but we’re all a bit interested whenever we realize that we’re about to receive a few clues about what some people who don’t want to be observed are doing.

It’s pretty clear that one of the things that stands as a threat to us, even in modern society, is the presence of a stranger. We simply don’t know what they’re like or what their intentions might be. And so, we do have this kind of friend or foe question in our minds. No one’s going to tell us credibly “I’m your friend” or “I’m your foe,” so we have to work that out ourselves. It seems sort of axiomatic that we must have mechanisms in our brain that enable us to do that, and that if we couldn’t do that, we would be in grave danger.

[The presence of strangers] really scares the hell out of us. When London and Paris in the early 1800’s were filling up with country-folk who were moving into the city, or even just visiting the cities, they were all almost uniformly frightened as to who these other people were. If you grew up in a town of 100 people, you would know everybody or know at least what they’re like. But to go into a city, and suddenly all these people are dressed differently and they’re carrying things that you don’t recognize and they’re proceeding at different paces. And you’ve heard that there were pickpockets in Paris or in London and there are prostitutes and there are con-artists and there’s a scary aspect to visiting these cities. That’s when stereotyping became really very popular.

Who were these people? Can you tell from the way they’re dressed if they pose any kind of a threat,? If you then proceed into the neuroscience realm and say “alright, what parts of the brain are involved here?” It’s the same parts of the brain that you’d be using for anything else except that we have an awful lot of sensory intake through the eye and the ear and especially through the nose, and that gives us clues as to what other people are like. You can actually smell fear. You can actually smell sadness. There are clues to aggressiveness and clues to trustworthiness. And we’re quite good at reading those displays, or those sensitive cues, that people give off. There are mechanisms in the brain that are specialized for that purpose.

Are there any negative consequences of eavesdropping?

Not really. Psychologists have a concept called “social comparison.” What they mean is this: When you are in public, you need to know how to behave. And the only way you can know how to behave is by looking around you and seeing how other people behave. So, you’ve got to be at least observant of public behavior, right? And there’s nothing eavesdrop-y about that. Especially if it’s a superficial level of just glancing around.

However, we also have a private self. And we need models for that too. So, what are other people like in private? We live in private a lot of our lives. We need to know what it’s like, or what it’s okay to be like, when we’re not under observation. And the only way you can know that is by looking at other people who think that they’re alone. There are many benefits I can list that go well beyond that. But, it’s pretty overwhelming. You’ve got to tap in.