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The Effect of Face Masks on Facial Emotion Recognition


Mike Rinck, Maximilian Primbs, Iris Verpaalen, & Gijs Bijlstra (all BSI)


Face masks are now worn frequently to reduce the spreading of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Their health benefits are undisputable, but covering the lower half of one's face may also make it harder for others to recognize facial expressions of emotions. The present experiment was conducted to determine if facial emotion recognition is indeed impaired by protective face masks, and if so, which emotions are confused with each other most often. One-hundred individuals participated in an online experiment during which they had to recognize facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust, as well as a neutral expression, displayed by male and female actors of the Radboud Faces Database. On half of the 168 trials, the lower part of the face was covered by a face mask. Following our preregistration, 9 participants had to be excluded. The remaining 91 participants showed impaired emotion recognition for masked faces, particularly when recognizing disgust, fear, surprise, sadness, and happiness, but not anger or neutral expressions. As predicted, participants confused those emotions that share activation of the visible muscles in the upper half of the face: They frequently misinterpreted disgust as anger, and fear as surprise, whereas the opposite confusions were less frequent. Face masks do indeed impair facial emotion recognition, and perceived anger or surprise may actually be disgust or fear, respectively. This may lead to misunderstandings, confusions, and inadequate reactions by the perceivers.

Additional Information

A manuscript that describes the study in detail is available from Mike Rinck. A conceptual replication study will be conducted in October/November.

Contact Information:

Mike Rinck, m.rinck@psych.ru.nl