Do masks really interfere with emotional recognition?

We needn’t be so worried, experts say, because humans use more than just facial cues to read emotions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and masks were recommended as a public health tool, there has been much discussion and debate about them. An idea that masks impede our ability to gauge other people’s emotional cues has undoubtedly worried many, especially parents.

Fortunately, new research shows we needn’t worry, because humans use more than just facial cues to read emotions.

Paddy Ross, an associate professor of psychology at Durham University, studied our abilities to assess the emotional state of others as far back as 2011, when he started graduate school. It was there that he first noticed a drawback in many studies: they only assessed facial cues when it came to our understanding of how humans perceive the emotions of others.

“I did my doctorate. in Glasgow and everyone was making faces,” Ross said, “but it always struck me that if you see someone coming up the hill from a mile away, you have to know if they’re mad at you before he gets close enough to see their face.

When the first studies claimed that masks impaired the ability to read emotions, he immediately recalled his graduate school experience and wanted to investigate.

More than a face

“I thought, no, that’s not how you see people in real life,” Ross said. In most everyday social interactions, we see more than the face. Language, situational context, and body language are all important cues.

In Ross’s study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, he tested whether participants’ ability to assess emotions was impaired by masks if the whole body was visible. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case.

Ross used the Expressive Body Action Stimuli Test (BEAST), which is an established set of images commonly used in emotion recognition experiments. Participants were given images – some masked, some without – and were then asked to rate the emotional state of the person in the images as well as rate their own confidence in their assessment. This gave a measure of both accuracy and confidence.

The researchers found there was no difference in accuracy, but adding masks reduced confidence, especially when judging happiness. This, however, points to potential caveats in experimental design, such as using static images and obtaining a model to statically mimic happiness is difficult.

“The way the Happinesses were designed, people were asked to imagine they were greeting a long-lost friend,” Ross explained. The common result is a person with outstretched hands and a smile. But, according to Ross, when you suppress the smiles, the outstretched hands is a rather ambiguous gesture.

No study is perfect

For Ross, the purpose of the study was simply to add more realism and to show that some of the catastrophizing about the masks was unwarranted. Ross is quick to point out the limitations of his own study and acknowledges that no study is perfect. “You can only claim what you’re doing, can you, you can’t kind of extrapolate from your study to the real world so far.”

For example, while he thinks using bodies and faces is better than just faces, using dynamic bodies would be better than still images. Using VR would be better than using 2D video etc.

For better or for worse, that’s the nature of experimental work, trying to balance realism and control. “It’s really the compromise. We can find out very specific things about what people think of these images and then try a bit of extrapolation to real life,” Ross said.

There are other interesting questions to ask about mask-wearing and emotional recognition. For example, do cultures more accustomed to wearing masks compensate with exaggerated hand gestures? For now, however, we can relax and be confident in our ability to know whether the masked bus passenger is angry or not.

Reference: Paddy Ross and Emily George, Are face masks a problem for emotion recognition? Not when the whole body is visible, Front Neurosci (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2022.915927

Image credit: Helena Jankovičová Kováčová on Pixabay

About Bernice D. Brewer

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