A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 1, 2021

How Covid Masks Block Understanding of Emotion

Masks that cover the bottom half of human faces make it harder to recognize and understand emotions, which may make the physical return to organizational workplaces more challenging. 

Happiness, sadness and anger are difficult to ascertain when the subject is wearing a mask, though fear is readily recognizable. While many are working remotely and can safely reveal their faces, as more people are vaccinated and return to the workplace, successful enterprises recognize the psychology of rebuilding interpersonal and team culture may require additional training and effort. JL 

Robert Hotz reports in the Wall Street Journal:

While a public health necessity, masks challenge understanding facial expressions, confusing ability to distinguish disgust from anger or happiness from indifference. Scientists worry about the implications for (those) who may lag in learning to recognize subtle facial signals of anger, fear, doubt, delight and sorrow. Laboratory experiments in Frontiers in Psychology, found people confused expressions when the lower part of the face was blocked by a mask. Happiness and sadness seemed neutral. Signs of anger were especially hard to perceive. Fear, though, came through clearly.

In a world of masks, it’s harder than ever to read the faces around us. Only now are scientists learning how we manage without the revealing tells of smiles, sneers, dimples and frowns that signal our state of mind, as masks in public settings become common in more than 50 countries.

While a public health necessity, masks challenge our skill in understanding facial expressions, confusing our ability to distinguish disgust from anger or happiness from indifference, several new studies say. Scientists worry about the implications for infants and children who may lag in learning to recognize subtle facial signals of anger, fear, doubt, delight and sorrow. While data is sparse, one new study suggests that children have as much trouble reading facial expressions when people are wearing masks as when they are wearing sunglasses.

In that test, the children correctly identified the emotional expression on uncovered faces about 66% of the time, well above the odds of just guessing, psychologist Ashley Ruba at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said. Looking at faces in surgical-type masks, however, the children were only able to correctly identify sadness about 28% of the time, anger 27% of the time, and fear 18% of the time.

“For very young children, I think it is still an open question as to how they’ll navigate these situations,” said Dr. Ruba, who studies how children learn to understand other people’s emotions. “Infants can use all these other cues, like tone of voice.”

In laboratory experiments published last fall in Frontiers in Psychology, psychologist Claus-Christian Carbon at Germany’s University of Bamberg found that people readily confused expressions when the lower part of the face was blocked by a surgical mask. Happiness and sadness seemed like neutral poker faces. Signs of anger were especially hard to perceive. Wide-eyed fear, though, came through clearly.

“It hampers everyday life,” Dr. Carbon said. “It’s not just that you can’t read the face anymore. You misread it and misinterpret emotions. You also feel yourself a little bit misunderstood.”

No other creature appears to rely so much on facial cues to communicate or has so many facial muscles to control expression, scientists say. It’s a candid language of emotion based on muscle movements tugging at the living mask we show to the world that, nurtured by evolution, every child is born to learn.

An infant begins to perceive faces within the first few days of life, with a preference for facelike arrangements that enables the brain to wire itself, with experience, to become expert at perceiving faces, scientists say. In this, a mother’s face is a beacon.

“The face provides a massive amount of information,” said psychologist Dachter Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley. “Many people really feel the face and our expressions are the readout of our identity.”

For more than a century, though, scientists have argued over whether facial expressions are truly universal. In fact, some scientists are skeptical that the twitch of an eyebrow, the flare of a nostril or the curl of a lip is even all that revealing. “Facial expressions don’t really tell us a lot about how people feel,” said psychologist Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To study expressions globally, scientists at Google Research and the University of California, Berkeley recently harnessed machine learning and neural network algorithms to analyze six million video clips of people in hundreds of everyday situations in 144 countries. All told, they identified 16 facial expressions that seemed to be shared world-wide, such as joy at a wedding, sorrow at a funeral, amusement at a practical joke or awe during a fireworks display.

Published last month in Nature, their study offered strong evidence that basic facial expressions are universal, several experts said. “We were surprised that we got so many facial patterns shared across the modern world, which shows the power of Big Data,” said Alan Cowen, a visiting faculty researcher at Google who led the study team.

While assessing the social impact of masks, the scientists all emphasized that the value of face coverings to help curb the pandemic far outweighed any temporary disruption in nonverbal communication. People can compensate by becoming more attuned to the tone of voice and using more expressive gestures or body language, they said.

Despite the worries about masks’ effect on the young, the new research by Dr. Ruba and Dr. Pollak on children’s ability to detect emotions despite masks, published last month in PLOS One, showed that the proliferation of face coverings to keep Covid-19 in check so far does not block children completely from picking up some cues of mood, intent and emotion.

In their experiment, the scientists showed a diverse group of 80 children aged 7 to 13 years old photos of faces displaying sadness, anger or fear. The children looked at images in which the faces were uncovered, covered by a surgical mask, and wearing sunglasses. They asked the children to assign an emotion to each face from a list of six labels.

To make the test more realistic, the faces were revealed a little at a time in 14 stages to better simulate the way real-world interactions may require piecing things together from odd angles or partial views. “This seemed more analogous to the fleeting glimpses of emotion that children might see in everyday life, rather than just presenting kids with a full high-intensity face,” Dr. Ruba said.

Generally, the children’s accuracy didn’t vary whether the face was wearing sunglasses or a mask. “If children are able to interact with people wearing sunglasses, they can probably do the same thing with people wearing a mask,” Dr. Ruba said. “My sense is that the kids will be all right.”


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