The hidden social cost of wearing face masks
Dr Chan Kai Qin explores how face masks inhibit social interactions by pondering what the Mona Lisa would look like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mona Lisa — arguably the most famous painting in the world — involved a combination of art, science, optics, and more for Leonardo da Vinci to create her iconic smile. Mona Lisa’s smile incorporates the science of how our eyes process detail and perceptions, resulting in an elusive smile rich with inner emotion.
Nevertheless, if Da Vinci were to paint the Mona Lisa today, the charm behind the painting would be gone, because Mona Lisa would almost certainly be required to wear a face mask while being painted.
More than a year into the pandemic, wearing masks has become commonplace. After all, masks keep us safe by filtering out the highly-contagious virus. However, face masks also appear to hinder social interactions. As such, Dr Chan Kai Qin, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at James Cook University in Singapore, and his students set out to investigate the social implications of wearing face masks.
While firmly pro-mask, Dr Chan says, “This research was inspired by my own personal struggles in the classroom, especially in SP51 2020 when we were all required to wear masks for the first time, all the time. It was just difficult to connect to students. I couldn't tell if they understood what I said, whether they were confused, etc. I tried to portray a warm approach by smiling, but I'd always wonder if they could tell whether I was smiling. I don't think my experience is unique to myself; I'm sure everyone has their own stories and struggles while being masked up. But we never talk about this publicly.”
In one study, Dr Chan and his team sought to determine how good people are in discerning emotions of people who are masked up. They presented participants with hundreds of faces — some masked, and some unmasked — and tasked them with identifying the emotion shown on each face, whether it was anger, happiness, sadness, fear, or disgust. Accuracy was nearly a 100 per cent with unmasked faces, but participants struggled with masked faces because the mouth is an important part of conveying emotions, especially with happiness, sadness, and disgust.
Next, the team wanted to establish if people were actually looking at the mouth region. In this particular study, they fitted participants with eye trackers and presented them with various masked and unmasked faces again. Participants had to rate the trustworthiness of faces, rather than point out what emotion they saw (all faces were smiling faces). The results showed that for unmasked faces, people instinctively look mostly at the mouth — the very feature that made the Mona Lisa so charming.
On the other hand, when viewing faces that were masked up, people focused on the eyes. After all, with masked faces, the eyes are the next-best cue that would give more information about that person with whom they are interacting. The more they focused on the eyes, the less trustworthy they found the person to be. This has significant implications for fields such as counselling and customer service which require more human connection than other fields.
A similar phenomenon was observed during the 2014–15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The healthcare workers — outfitted head-to-toe in white, faceless personal protection equipment (PPE) suits — looked intimidating (drawing comparisons to Stormtroopers from Star Wars) to the very patients they were supposed to care for. By sticking smiling headshot portraits to the outside of the healthcare worker’s PPE, they were able to show patients just who exactly was taking care of them. This humanised the healthcare workers, thus reducing patient isolation and fears while increasing trust and connection with the healthcare professional.
“In some sense, before COVID-19, we were like the Mona Lisa — we were most charming when we smiled. People trusted us when we smiled, and could tell how we were feeling if they saw our full faces,” Dr Chan says. “But during COVID-19, we have lost our charming smile, and along with that, it has become more difficult to establish trust and to establish emotional connection. These are the hidden social cost of wearing face masks.”
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