Protective face masks have become omnipresent in public life. People wear them when grocery shopping, when sitting on the bus, and when interacting with others at their work. While the medical benefits of face masks are clear, whether and how face masks influence the dynamics of our interactions with others is only poorly understood. Many people feel that face masks make it harder to know what others are feeling, or whether others can be trusted. But is this actually true?
To find out researchers from the University of Groningen conducted an online experiment in which they presented participants with portrait photographs of individuals expressing various emotions. For half of the participants, parts of the presented faces were covered by a face mask. Once a photograph was presented, participants indicated what emotion the person expressed and how they perceived the person.
The study confirmed that face masks indeed make it harder to accurately ‘read’ others’ emotions. Face masks also make others appear less close, possibly leading people to move closer – a counterproductive response that undermines virus containment measures. Surprising effects were found when masked faces expressed negative emotions: Masked persons who express anger, sadness, or disgust were seen as more trustworthy, likable, and less distant compared to people not wearing face masks. A positive consequence may be that distressed people wearing a face mask may be more likely to receive assistance from others when needed.
Overall, face masks undoubtedly shape people’s everyday interactions. They influence the accuracy with which they recognize emotions as well as their social judgements. Hence, people, politicians, and policy makers should be mindful of face masks’ consequences above and beyond the medical context. The study on face masks’ consequences for emotion perception and social judgments is published in the scientific magazine
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