Wearing masks makes it difficult to read other people’s emotions, especially happiness, which can negatively impact social interactions and customer service, two joint studies from the Center for Applied Research in Decision-Making have found. Fox School of Business and Ipsos, a French market. research company, according to a Jan. 28 press release.
The studies were conducted in October 2020 and March 2021. Participants were asked to identify emotions across a range of faces and gave less specific responses for each emotion except anger when judging masked faces versus faces not masked.
Masking helps mitigate the spread of COVID-19 because it acts as a barrier between exhaling or inhaling viral droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Widespread wearing of masks, including non-medical masks, reduces community spread, according to a 2021 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
However, masks hide parts of people’s faces, creating compromises in educational settings, said Joshua Klugman, professor of psychology and sociology.
For example, language teachers teach students how to pronounce and enunciate words by mimicking the way their lips shape as air passes through them, Klugman said. When wearing masks, students cannot see the lower center portion of the instructor’s face, making it difficult to imitate them.
“I’m sure the socialization will improve,” Klugman said. “People’s joy, happiness, their social experiences, will increase when warrants are overturned, but also when the threat of COVID has decreased.
The consequences of masking for adults in the workplace are likely less severe than for children in school, due to differences in neurodevelopment, Klugman said.
Companies in the retail, hospitality and service sectors had asked Ipsos to study the impact of masking on customer service since the start of the pandemic because they were concerned about the experience of their customers, like the emotional bond between customer and employee that would be stifled by wearing masks, said Jean-Francois Damais, global head of research at Ipsos.
Fox and Ipsos collaborated on this study because Vinod Venkatraman, a Fox marketing professor and director of CARD, took a research sabbatical at Ipsos headquarters in Paris from 2019 to early 2020. While in Paris, Venkatraman worked with Ipsos to explore ways tracking individuals’ biometric data could help companies shape customer behavior.
“We’ve always been interested in human behavior and communication,” Venkatraman said.
To conduct the studies, the researchers emailed a random representative sample of the US population, controlling for demographics such as age, race and place of origin. The researchers then directed the volunteers to a Zoom call, where they viewed images of different faces and deciphered their emotions, Venkatraman said.
Participants were first given images of full facial features without a mask. The volunteers then saw the upper half of the face, with the lower part masked, and the lower half of the face with the upper part masked.
They were then presented with images of a smile or a frown to see how well participants could decipher emotions when the mask covered half of the face. The researchers then asked the volunteers to rate how well they could discern each facial expression with the mask placed on top or bottom of the face.
For the second study, Ipsos acquired new participants and showed them a different set of faces, comparing those results to the October test results.
Going forward, Damais wants to study the impact of the pandemic on people during transitional periods, such as from adolescence to adulthood. He would also like to study the differences in how the pandemic has shaped an adolescent’s brain compared to an adult’s brain.
“It would be interesting to see if there’s been any particular impact on the generations growing up from a young age thanks to the pandemic,” Damais said.