Written by Fiona Lock
Humans are hardwired from birth to recognise faces. They hold the key to deducing another person’s identity, emotions, thoughts and group membership. Even at a mere 2 days old, infants prefer to look at faces over other patterned stimuli and soon prefer their mother’s face to other faces (Bushneil, 1989). Furthermore, within 5 days, Ferroni (2007) found that infants paid more attention to happy faces compared to other facial expressions. Then, over the following months, children rapidly learn how to mimic, detect and take cues from different facial expressions.
These abilities are examples of non-verbal communication, which compounds up to 80% of our daily interactions. In addition, facial expressions are thought to account for 55% of successful communication when words and tone cannot be inferred (Talentsmarteq, 2020).
It is also widely accepted that reading facial expressions, in particular, ‘happiness’ requires the use of holistic processing: studying and interpreting the face as a whole rather than as individual features. Thereby, it is reasonable to assume that the billions of people worldwide required to wear a face mask in public may be experiencing a deficit in communication.
During my exploration of this issue, I came across the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test developed by prof. Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. This test features 36 distinct facial images showing only the eyes and eyebrows. Using this information, the participant’s task is to determine the emotional state from a choice of four options.
(If you would like to participate in the study yourself, here is the link :
I managed a result of 28/36.
Despite reassurance that my score was average for a university student, I still felt slightly uneasy that I had misread almost 1 in every 5 facial expressions. My result made me question what vital social information I might have missed, or failed to convey, on mask-wearing outings to the library, canteen, supermarket or on public transport. In fact, Roitblat et al. found that viewing only the eyes rather than the full face impaired the ability to accurately detect emotional states in up to 50% of cases.
The debrief went on to explain that individuals with autism may find it particularly challenging to reliably detect emotions using only the eyes. Furthermore, the eye-contact required to communicate can cause heightened discomfort and disorientation. Nevertheless, autism awareness charities such as ‘Autism Hampshire’ are hopeful that the public’s experience of mask-wearing will promote empathy for members of our communities with lifelong communication difficulties.
Another group significantly disadvantaged by mask-wearing are those who suffer from diagnoses of borderline personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia. Both these disorders have been linked to a tendency to interpret neutral facial expressions as hostile. It is likely that the removal of facial cues by a mask amplifies this effect and causes agitation in social settings.
Therefore, whilst many members of our community may have already adapted to masked communication, we should remain sensitive to its limitations. Unfortunately, a social smile of greeting or gratitude to workers in hospitality or passers-by is likely to be lost under a mask. Only a Duchenne smile of true happiness, which engages the muscles around the eyes, can be detected.
With a portion of our face covered, it would be beneficial to pay extra attention to our other communication tools – body language, tone, intonation, and gestures. In these tough times, the value of a friendly thank you or a thumbs up should not be underestimated.
Masks may be here to stay but we can still strengthen the connections with those around us.
Autism Hampshire. (2020). Face Masks – Barriers in communication for autistic people. Retrieved from: https://www.autismhampshire.org.uk/index/covid-19-resources/face-masks-barriers-in-communication-for-autistic-people
Bushneil, I.W.R., Sai, F. and Mullin, J.T. (1989), Neonatal recognition of the mother’s face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7: 3-15. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835X.1989.tb00784.x
Chen, W., Cheung, O.S. (2020). Flexible face processing: Holistic processing of facial identity is modulated by task-irrelevant facial expression. Vision Research, 178, 18-27. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2020.09.008
Farroni,T. (2007). The perception of facial expressions in newborns. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4, 2-13. doi:10.1080/17405620601046832
Hood, L. (2016). Face time: here’s how infants learn from facial expressions. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/face-time-heres-how-infants-learn-from-facial-expressions-53327
Persaud, R.,Bruggen, P. (2020) The Psychology of Wearing a Face Mask. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/slightly-blighty/202005/the-psychology-wearing-face-mask
Reucher, G. (2020). Look into my eyes: Communication in the era of face masks. Retrieved from:https://www.dw.com/en/look-into-my-eyes-communication-in-the-era-of-face-masks/a-53529696
Roitblat, Y., Cohensedgh, S., Frig-Levinson, E., Cohen, M., Dadbin, K., Shohed, C., Shvartsman, D., & Shterenshis, M. (2020). Emotional expressions with minimal facial muscle actions Report 2: Recognition of emotions. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-020-00691-7
Talentsmarteq. (2020). Mask-to-Mask Communication: Know What You’re Missing. Retrieved from: https://talentsmart.blog/2020/08/18/mask-to-mask-communication-know-what-youre-missing/