New research suggests that masks can impact social functioning. The study, published in PLOS One, found that masks diminish people’s ability to accurately identify facial expressions.
Face masks have been widely adopted in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, but little is known about the psychological consequences of this development.
“Emotional expressions play a crucial role when we interact with others. Because what others say and do can be quite ambiguous, their emotions can help us to better understand what they intend or mean,” said lead researcher Felix Grundmann, a PhD candidate at the Social and Organizational Psychology department of the University of Groningen.
“Given that face masks cover a large part of the face, we wondered what effect they would have on our ability to recognize emotions and on our social interactions more generally. Ever since the introduction of face masks on a global scale, people have voiced concerns regarding their psychological side effects.”
In the study, 191 German adults completed an emotion-recognition task in which they were shown portrait photographs of human faces and asked to indicate whether the expressed emotion was neutral, surprised, proud, amused, happy, fearful, angry, sad, or disgusted. The participants also rated the extent to which they deemed each person trustworthy, likable, and close to them.
The participants were randomly assigned to view either masked or unmasked faces during the task.
The researchers found that those in the mask condition tended to have significantly worse emotion-recognition accuracy. Emotion-recognition accuracy dropped from 69.9% in the unmasked condition to 48.9% in the masked condition.
“Our results indicate that face masks may make it harder for us to accurately detect other people’s emotions. In some situations, they may also reduce how close we feel to another person. Yet, they do not seem to affect how trustworthy or likable we find someone,” Grundmann told PsyPost.
The researchers also found evidence that masks buffered the negative effects of expressing negative emotions. Negative emotional expressions such as anger were associated with lower ratings of trustworthiness, likability, and closeness. But masks weakened the effect of negative emotional expressions on these social judgments. In other words, angry masked faces tended to be rated as more trustworthy, likable, and close compared to unmasked angry faces.
“A limitation of our study and other related studies on this topic pertains to how emotion-recognition accuracy was examined,” Grundmann noted. “In our study, we used pictures of people expressing different emotions. However, outside the laboratory, emotion expressions are not picture-like. It is thus not clear whether our results also hold true for more realistic emotion expressions.”
“Even though face masks may negatively impact our social interactions by reducing emotion-recognition accuracy and perceptions of closeness, their value and usefulness need to be evaluated in light of their tremendous medical benefits,” Grundmann added.
The study, “Face masks reduce emotion-recognition accuracy and perceived closeness“, was authored by Felix Grundmann, Kai Epstude, and Susanne Scheibe.