In everyday life, the ability to sense objects in the space around us is key to functioning and staying safe. Have you ever wondered which sense gives us the most details about our environment? We get the majority of information about what is happening around us through hearing. We hear within a 360-degree radius, while we only see within about a 120-degree radius. In addition, unlike vision, which we can “turn off” merely by closing our eyes, we are unable to block sounds out with sheer willpower.

So, in a way, hearing is a superpower.  It lets us receive crucial information about the environment. It tells us about things we cannot see at all, perhaps because they are obscured or because they are behind us.  From an evolutionary point of view, hearing is an adaptation that helps us avoid danger.

However, hearing may also be biased. Research in psychoacoustics—the field that studies the psychology of sound—has shown an auditory bias for specific sound locations. We detect sounds such as barking dogs, laughing children, or roaring engines more quickly when they occur behind us rather than in front of us. Perhaps more importantly, we experience stronger negative emotions in response to sounds that come from behind us than to sounds that come from the front. We wondered if this basic auditory bias also applies to the perception of verbal messages.

In social life, we communicate with each other mostly through speech. Because our spatial position relative to other people keeps changing, verbal messages reach us from various locations. Some messages come from the front. In face‐to‐face interactions, for example, we not only hear what the other person says, but we can see the speakers' eyes, facial expressions, and gestures.

However, sometimes we don’t face a person who is speaking to us because we need to watch what is in front of us or are physically unable to turn around. For example, a driver may hear a passenger's request while watching the road, or a teacher may hear a question from a student while she is writing on a white board. Similar things happen to mountain climbers, kayakers, soldiers, and musicians.  They all may hear important communication coming from behind them. For people with a physical disability, it might not even be possible to turn toward incoming sounds every time someone speaks to them from behind.

With these examples in mind, we explored how people evaluate verbal messages that come from behind them and whether these evaluations depend on the content of what is said. Specifically, we asked our research participants to listen to and evaluate verbal messages that were either about themselves or about another person. In both cases, the messages were presented either behind or in front of the participants.  

Our results showed a rear negativity effect.  Listeners evaluated verbal messages coming from behind them as more negative than exactly the same messages coming from in front of them. This effect occurred both for messages about the participant and about another person, but the negativity bias was stronger when the message was personally relevant to the listener rather than being about someone else.

So, what does the rear negativity effect mean? Our results suggest that people have a bias to evaluate verbal messages more negatively when they come from outside their visual field. We don’t like it when somebody literally talks behind our back, especially when they talk about us. Alfred de Musset, a French dramatist, would probably have agreed.  He observed that “The most disagreeable thing that your worst enemy says to your face does not come close to what your best friends say behind your back.” He seems to have been right.

This rear negativity bias may affect how we communicate.  For example, speakers may pay attention to their own spatial position and adjust how they communicate while behind someone. Speakers may be more careful about what they say—and how they say it—when they know the listener is  hearing them from behind.  Whether this proves to be the case or not, the rear negativity effect deserves further research attention. After all, important messages sometimes come to us from behind.

For Further Reading

Frankowska, N., Parzuchowski, M., Wojciszke, B., Olszanowski, M., Winkielman, P. (2020). Rear negativity: Verbal messages coming from behind are perceived as more negative. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50(4), 889-902.

Natalia Frankowska is a social psychologist at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland who studies the perception of sounds. Recently, Natalia began new lines of research in evolutionary psychology that include pathogen avoidance and mate choices.