Masks impair the recognition of six basic facial expressions, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychology. The findings suggests that visual information from lower portions of the face play an important role in understanding facial expressions.
“We know that humans communicate with facial cues, and of those cues, facial expressions are one of the most important because they signal another individual’s emotional state,” said study author Sarah McCrackin, postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory for Social Attention and Cognition at McGill University.
“While masks are critical in preventing the spread of COVID-19, they cover the lower part of the face and obscure these facial cues. We were interested in examining how covering the lower face with face masks affected our ability to recognize facial expressions.”
For their study, the researchers asked 120 undergraduate students to identify emotions from male and female faces with and without masks. The faces showed happy, sad, fearful, surprised, disgusted, angry, and neutral expressions. The participants also completed assessments of autistic traits and the “big five” personality traits.
The researchers found that masks reduced overall recognition accuracy by approximately 23%.
“The key point to take away from this work is that face masks make reading emotions from faces difficult,” McCrackin told PsyPost. “Our study found that accuracy in recognizing of all six basic emotions (anger, sadness, fear, happiness, disgust, surprise) was worse when faces wore masks, with recognition of disgust, anger and sadness affected the most and recognition of fear, surprise, and happiness affected the least. In other words, the pandemic has affected our social health as well as our physical health, fundamentally altering the way that we nonverbally communicate.”
The researchers also found that participants with more autistic traits tended to perform worse on the emotion recognition task. But masks did not appear to exacerbate the association between autistic traits and poor emotion recognition. “This would suggest that autistic traits in the typically developing population may be linked to a more general impairment in emotion recognition possibly due to an overall increased difficulty in reading social cues rather than specific issues in reading particular facial cues,” McCrackin and her colleagues wrote in their study.
“There are many important future questions that arise from this research,” McCrackin said. “For example, we need to understand how the social effects of face masks may be reduced. One option is to examine if the same issues persist when people wear clear masks, which would keep us safe but still allow for visual cues to be seen. Similarly, we can also examine if providing more verbal information (e.g., informing our conversation partners that we have had a bad or good day) would be able to restore some of the lost emotional information.”
“We also need to understand if there are long term effects of visual exposure to masked faces,” McCrackin continued. “While we know that face perception is a process that is affected by expertise, it is at present unknown how the lack of visual exposure during development or increased exposure in adulthood may affect this expertise. It is even possible that people may become better over time at recognizing emotions using just information from the eyes.”
“It is important to consider the social impact of impact of face masks in contexts other than the pandemic, like healthcare,” McCrackin added. “For example, part of a doctor’s job is being able to identify when patients are feeling negative emotions such as anger or sadness. Our data suggest that recognition of these two emotions are impacted by face masks the most, so it would be important to for doctors to be aware of these limitations in communication when interacting with masks.”
The study, “Face Masks Impair Basic Emotion Recognition“, was authored by Sarah D. McCrackin, Francesca Capozzi, Florence Mayrand, and Jelena Ristic.