Face masks impair nonverbal communication between individuals | Newsroom
Credit: McGill University

Face masks have been used to control the spread of COVID-19. While masks are important for fighting disease, they hide parts of our faces which are used for communication.

A group of researchers from the Laboratory for Attention and Social Cognition at the University of Montreal looked at the facial expressions of 120 people and compared them to happy, sad, fearful, angry, disgusted, surprised, and neutral faces. They found that face masks made it harder to recognize facial expressions. Human social communication is altered by obscuring face parts. The research was published.

Q&A with Jelena Ristic, Full Professor and William Dawson Scholar.

What question did you set out to answer?

Humans communicate with their faces in a silent language. We are able to read a number of simple and complex social messages from faces alone. Face expression is one of the most important signals we get from faces.

With the sudden and widespread adoption of face masks in 2020 to curb the COVID-19 epidemic, we set out to investigate how covering the lower part of the face with a mask impacted our ability to recognize basic emotions from facial expressions. We wanted to see if the behavior varied with the personality and social ability of the participants.

What did you find?

When faces were masked, our data showed that recognition of all facial expressions was affected. Anger and disgust were the most affected by masks. There was an impact on an intermediate amount of sadness and neutral expressions. Fear, surprise, and happiness were the most affected.

The magnitude of the impact of masks on emotion recognition shows that visual information from the lower face is important for reading emotions from facial expressions. We concluded that the two expressions most strongly use social cues from this facial area were disgust and anger.

Correlation analyses showed that the effects were stable across individuals. People who ranked higher in terms of trait agreeableness, which includes attributes like altruism and prosocial behavior, had slightly better emotion recognition when faces wore masks compared to people who were lower in trait agreeableness. The higher in extroversion, characterized by a tendency to seek out social contact, had slightly worse emotion recognition when faces wore masks. Those with higher levels of social competence were better able to recognize emotional expression from faces that had been obscured.

The results are important.

The human social landscape underwent rapid change as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The adoption of face masks was one of the biggest changes. It is important that we understand the impact that face masks have on human social interactions, because we want to emphasize that wearing a mask is critical in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In a time when many are feeling socially isolated, the ability to recognize facial expressions is a fundamental part of social interactions and is linked to overall social and cognitive functioning.

These results are important for health and educational settings in which masks have become commonplace. Interpretation of emotional states is required for better patient outcomes. Our data shows that two of the most affected emotions by masks are anger and sadness. The consequences of mask wearing in educational settings on social development in children are unknown. While the need to wear masks in the Pandemic is unquestioned, one recommendation that follows from our preliminary data is that wearing FDA approved transparent face masks may help to alleviate some of the social difficulties resulting from facial occlusion by masks.

Our study shows that human social functioning has been impacted by the Pandemic in more ways than we thought.

More information: Sarah D. McCrackin et al, Face Masks Impair Basic Emotion Recognition, Social Psychology (2022). DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000470 Citation: Face masks found to impair nonverbal communication between individuals (2022, February 21) retrieved 21 February 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-02-masks-impair-nonverbal-individuals.html This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.