New research published in Scientific Report shows the extent to which face masks reduce face perception abilities and provides some insight into why this occurs.
“Face masks are an essential tool in our efforts to minimize COVID-19 transmission, and those masks are here for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is important to understand how masks affect our most important perceptual ability, that is face perception,” said study author Erez Freud, an assistant professor at York University.
“We use face recognition in every aspect of our social interaction; we find clues for the identity, gender, emotion, and intentions of people around us. However, in the era of face masks, faces do not look the same. This change may impact our ability to interact with people around us and interpret social interaction.”
In the study, 699 participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group completed the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), a validated assessment of face perception abilities. The second group completed a modified version of the test, which included faces partially covered by masks.
“We found that face masks reduce our ability to recognize faces by 15%,” Freud said.
“Importantly, face masks also change the way we process faces. In particular, face perception typically relies on holistic processing, that is the processing of the face as whole. However, for masked faces, this form of perception is not as efficient, and observers process different face features separately,” Freud told PsyPost.
Performance on the CFMT is typically reduced when faces are presented in an upside-down orientation. But the researchers found that this face inversion effect was reduced for masked faces, indicating that masks forced participants to analyze specific facial features rather than the greater whole.
“The inversion of a face makes it difficult to extract configural relationships between face parts and, therefore, the twofold smaller inversion effect for masked faces can be taken as evidence that holistic processing is largely reduced (though not entirely abolished),” the researchers said. “Thus, the processing of masked faces relies more heavily on their available features rather than on configural or holistic information.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“There are several open questions we wish to address in future studies,” Freud explained.” One important question regards to the effect of training with masked faces on our face perception ability. In short, are we getting better in masked face recognition one year into the pandemic?
“Another open question concerns children ability to recognize masked faces. We know that face perception abilities develop with age, however, it is yet to be determined what is the effect of masks on children’s’ face perception abilities.”
The study, “The COVID-19 pandemic masks the way people perceive faces“, was authored by Erez Freud, Andreja Stajduhar, R. Shayna Rosenbaum, Galia Avidan, and Tzvi Ganel.