A recent study conducted by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada has shown that wearing face masks interferes with effective communication between people because masks hide parts of our faces used for nonverbal communication expressing our emotions and intentions.1
Shortly after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials provided guidelines that everyone must wear face masks to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.2 Since a significant part of communication among humans involves non-verbal communication, the general public wearing masks became aware that masking had adverse effects on human interaction, particularly among children.3
The researchers at McGill University wanted to investigate how covering the lower part of the face with a mask impacts the ability to recognize basic emotions from facial expressions.4 Sarah McCrackin, postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory for Social Attention and Cognition at McGill University said:
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.5
Findings Show Face Masks Reduce Ability to Recognize All Emotions
The study examined the ability of 120 participants to recognize basic facial emotions, such as fear, happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and neutral by comparing communication between those wearing a mask and those not wearing a mask.6
The study found that face masks reduced overall recognition of facial expression accuracy by approximately 23 percent. The reduction of recognition varied by the type of emotions. Identification of disgust (46 percent accuracy reduction) and anger (30 percent) were impacted the most by masks. Sadness (23 percent) and neutral expressions (23 percent) were impacted an intermediate level. Fear (10 percent), surprise (15 percent) and happiness (15 percent) were the least impacted.7
The findings highlight the impact of COVID pandemic management policies on social interactions, providing evidence that social communication is impaired when people wearing masks interact with each other.8
“The key point to take away from this work is that face masks make reading emotions from faces difficult,” said Sarah McCrackin, PhD, the lead investigator for the study. “She added that mask wearing may interfere with the doctor-patient relationship and the ability of doctors to accurately evaluate a patient’s health status.
It is important to consider the social impact of impact of face masks in contexts other than the pandemic, like healthcare. 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 for doctors to be 9ware of these limitations in communication when interacting with masks.1
The Importance of Non-Verbal Communication
Research shows that non-verbal communication, such as facial expressions, accounts for 55 percent of overall communication between people.10 The eyes and the mouth are the two major parts of the face that assist in assessing non-verbal cues. Facial expressions play a critical role in communication and the relaying of emotions between individuals. When people are able to take visual clues from one another, it helps them to more effectively predict situations and create appropriate responses.11
The study researchers state:
It is important that we understand the impact that face masks may have on human social interactions. This is especially true in a time where many are feeling socially isolated, given that the ability to recognize facial expressions is a fundamental part of social interactions and is linked to overall social and cognitive functioning.12
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Click here to view References:
1 McCrackin S et al. Face Masks Impair Basic Emotion Recognition. Social Psychology Feb. 21, 2022.
2 McGill University. Face masks impair nonverbal communication between individuals. Feb. 21, 2022.
3 Ceausu J. Masks impede communication, affect children says study. The Suburban Mar. 2, 2022.
4 McGill University. Face masks impair nonverbal communication between individuals. Feb. 21, 2022.
5 Dolan E. New research shows masks make it more difficult to read emotions from faces. Psypost.com Feb. 26, 2022.
6 McGill University. Face masks impair nonverbal communication between individuals. Feb. 21, 2022.
8 McCrackin S et al. Face Masks Impair Basic Emotion Recognition. Social Psychology Feb. 21, 2022.
9 Dolan E. New research shows masks make it more difficult to read emotions from faces. Psypost.com Feb. 26, 2022.
10 Mheidly N et al. Effect of Face Masks on Interpersonal Communication During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health 2020; 8: 582191.
11 McCrackin S et al. Face Masks Impair Basic Emotion Recognition. Social Psychology Feb. 21, 2022.
12 McGill University. Face masks impair nonverbal communication between individuals. Feb. 21, 2022.