Wearing a face mask is a COVID-19 infection control staple. Many states, provinces and municipalities now mandate the use of masks in indoor public spaces to prevent viral spread. Over 90 per cent of American adults wear them, and some are double masking.
But how do face masks affect social interactions?
It turns out we are not only less able to recognize one another, but we also see each other as less human. It is harder to recognize emotions correctly and we tend to over-perceive anger. Physical masks may even exacerbate racial bias.
Parts of a whole
Masks fundamentally alter face perception, making facial identification less accurate. They disrupt holistic processing, so that instead of a unified whole, the face breaks down into a collection of separate features: two eyes, eyebrows, a nose, mouth and chin.
“If your car differed from the other cars in the parking lot by just a couple of millimetres or centimetres, you would never find it,” says social psychologist Kurt Hugenberg. “But finding your friend in a crowd is no problem” — thanks to holistic processing.
It allows us to tell each other apart easily, even though our faces are objectively extremely similar, Hugenberg says. It also lets us extract other signals, like facial expressions. “And finally, this sort of holistic face processing sends a signal that a person is a person. It provides this flash of recognition of the humanness of another person,” says Hugenberg.
“When we undermine that ability to recognize a face as a face,” says Hugenberg, “it takes away — at least in part — some of its humanness.”