What is it about?

Face masks have become the symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because face masks cover a large part of a person’s face, we wondered whether face masks have unintended psychological ‘side effects’ in addition to their medical benefits. We asked ourselves whether face masks make it more difficult to recognize what others are feeling. For example, when a person is angry or sad, are we still able to recognize their feelings from their face when they are wearing a mask? To test this, we showed people pictures of faces that expressed different feelings. For each picture, people wrote down which feeling they thought the face was expressing. Importantly, for half of the people, the faces were covered by a face mask. We found that people are indeed worse at correctly recognizing feelings when a face is covered by a face mask. We also found that people feel less close to people that wear face masks. Yet, we did not find that people consider those who wear a face mask to be less trustworthy or less likable.

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Why is it important?

These findings help us to better understand the potential psychological consequences of wearing face masks. They showcase that in some situations it may be sensible to use alternatives to traditional face masks. For example, in therapeutic or medical conversations where it is critical that feelings are correctly recognized, people may want to wear transparent face shields instead of face masks. At the same time, we find it important that more research with more naturalistic situations is done. In everyday life, people do not judge another person’s feelings based on their facial expressions alone. Rather, they use people’s gestures and what they say along with facial cues. When people have all the information that is typically present during real-life social encounters, the negative side effects of face masks may be reduced.


The results of our study suggest that face masks can undermine smooth social functioning. Still, for a more complete picture, future studies should focus on face masks’ potential side effects in real-life settings.

Felix Grundmann
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Face masks reduce emotion-recognition accuracy and perceived closeness, PLoS ONE, April 2021, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249792.
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