Wearing face masks may hinder our ability to show empathy – study

While helping prevent Covid transmission, they can make it harder to share emotions

‘When the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions.’ Photograph: iStock

‘When the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Hiding the bottom half of the face with a mask could have a detrimental effect on our ability to socially interact and share other people’s emotions, according to new research.

The study which involved researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and Cardiff University in Wales has confirmed what many of us have experienced when meeting people while wearing face masks in shops or on public transport. The researchers found that people who can’t see or express emotions in their face can struggle to show empathy or detect positive social cues.

“People tend to automatically imitate others’ facial expressions of emotion when looking at them – whether that be a smile, a frown or a smirk,” explains lead author Dr Ross Vanderwert, lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University.

This facial mimicry – where the brain recreates and mirrors the emotional experience of the other person – affects how we empathise with others and interact socially. And, when it is prevented from happening – for example when you wear a mask on the lower part of your face – it can impact on the emotional exchange between individuals. “Our study suggests that when the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions and the ability to share emotions,” says Dr Vanderwert.

Brain activity

The researchers recorded the brain activity of 38 individuals via an electroencephalogram whilst they watched videos of fearful, happy and angry expressions or a collection of inanimate everyday objects as a control.

Study participants were asked to watch the videos whilst holding a pen between their teeth for half the videos and without the pen for the remaining videos. The results revealed that participants who could freely move their face showed significant neural mirroring (the facial expressions prompted by active observation of other’s actions) when observing the emotional expressions but not the everyday objects. When the pen was held in their teeth, no neural mirroring was observed when looking at the happy and angry expressions – but it did show neural mirroring when looking at fearful expressions.

Dr Magdalena Rychlowska, from the Queen’s University Belfast School of Psychology, concluded that “for emotions that are more heavily expressed by the eyes, for example fear, blocking the information provided by the mouth doesn’t seem to affect our brain’s response to those emotions. But for the expressions that depend on the mouth, like a friendly smile, the blocking had more of an effect.”

The researchers are keen to point out that wearing face masks continues to be vital to protect ourselves and others during the Covid-19 pandemic but that they may have important implications for the way we communicate and interact. A 2020 study from the University of Bamberg in Germany also found that wearing face masks strongly confuses people when reading emotions of others; however, compensatory actions such as the use of body language, gesture and verbal communications can help keep social interactions effective.