How Masking Impacts Our Ability to Codify Human Emotions

In the recent past, I posted this missive on the negative impact of masking on the youngest members of society.  In this posting, we'll look at research that actually appears on the National Institutes of Health website, revealing how masking is impacting adults, something that most of us have noticed over the past 14 months whether we realize it consciously or subconsciously.

In the article entitled "Wearing Face Masks Strongly Confuses Counterparts in Reading Emotions", Claus-Christian Carbon opens with the following:

"Face masks not only have a direct positive medical impact in terms of preventing the virus from spreading to those who are most vulnerable; they also have positive societal effects as wearing masks allows for the relaxing of other preventive measures such as strict isolation and quarantining. However, face masks also cover, per definition, a major part of the human face, which can crucially affect social interaction. Our faces provide the key information of personal identity; additional socially important information such as trustworthiness, attractiveness, age, and sex; information that supports the understanding of speech by enabling facial speech analysis, as well as fine-grained information that allows for reading the other’s emotional state via expression analysis…

With regard to expression analysis, different studies have showed that we are far from perfect in assessing the emotional state of our counterpart. This is especially the case when we just rely on pure facial information without knowing the context of a scene. Another factor that lowers our performance in correctly reading emotions from faces is the static view on faces without any information about the dynamic progression of the seen expression. A partial occlusion of the face , e.g., by sunglasses or by scarfs, is a further obstacle to accurately reading emotions from facial expressions.

Carbon goes on to note that the masks commonly being worn during the pandemic obscure 60 to 70 percent of the area of the face that is relevant for expressing and transmitting emotions, making it difficult to read emotions in other people.  The study tested how a common face mask changes the efficacy of emotion in social settings and how masking affects the effectiveness of communication.

For the study, the author used a sample size of 41 participants ranging in age from 18 to 87 years and measured the ability of subjects to detect six different emotions; angry, disgusted, fearful, happy, neutral and sad) using two measurements, mask and no mask as shown here:

Frontal facial photos of 12 Caucasians consisting of 6 males and 6 females who belonged to three different age groups, young, middle-aged and elderly, were used in the study.  In total, 72 original pictures were used onto which software was employed to apply a plain, beige mask; this resulted in a total of 144 facial stimuli.  Each of the participants was shown the complete set of photos one after another with the order of the photos being randomized for each participant.  Participants were asked to spontaneously assess the emotional state of the image of the person that they were shown from the six aforementioned emotional states and then rank their confidence in their response from 1 (very unconfident) to 7 (very confident).  The entire test for each participant took between 20 and 25 minutes.

Now let's look at the results.  For faces without masks, there was a median of 89.5 percent correct responses with no participant scoring below 76.4 percent.  This dropped significantly when participants attempted to determine the emotion being displayed by faces wearing masks in all emotions except fearful and neutral.  

Here are the results in graphical form:

 

The study also found that the wearing of a face mask had a medium-sized impact on the performance of participants in assessing the emotional state of the individual and a larger-sized effect on the confidence of participants' correct emotional classification.

There was some clear-cut confusion in emotional states that faced participants when attempting to discern emotions in masked photographs as follows:

1.) all emotional states with the exception of fearful were repeatedly confused with a neutral state.

2.) sad was often confused with disgusted and neutral.

3.) anger was often confused with disgusted, neutral and sad.

4.) disgusted was confused with angry in 38 percent of cases compared to only 2 percent where no face mask was worn.

The author notes that previous studies show that the emotions of happy, sad and to a lesser extent angry, rely on the participants ability to see the mouth area of the subject. 

There is a strong need for humans to see an entire face to better understand and codify human emotions, key to preventing misunderstandings.  As the author states in his conclusion:

"Face masks may complicate social interaction as they disturb emotion reading from facial expression."

Without seeing a person's entire face, this research shows that there is a greater chance that we will misunderstand the emotions being felt by an individual who is wearing a mask, a necessary skill that is acquired very early in a human's life.

Click HERE to read more from this author.


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