Who Was That Masked Man?

Practical Applications for Nonverbal Intelligence and Emotional Indicators Visible while Masked

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

4-Minute Read

Recently, my good buddy Jan sent me an article from Social Psychology that highlighted a social cognition study conducted by Canada’s McGill University. The study aimed to assess whether, and to what extent, masks hinder the recognition of facial emotions.

Over 120 individuals compared the facial expressions of those wearing a mask versus those who were not.

What did the study find? It’s hard to communicate with masked people.

At a macro level, the study reported that mask-obscured faces reduced the accuracy of interpreted emotions by about a quarter of the time (24%). That may not be a surprise to you after trying to communicate through a mask during the past few years.

At a micro level, the two emotions that suffered the most from facial mask coverings (meaning they were even harder to detect when physically masked) were disgust and anger. This makes sense; the crinkling of the nose exhibited by disgust would be hidden with a mask worn over it and less detectable to the untrained eye. In addition, pressed lips—also a common and reliable indicator of anger—would also be obscured, although to the trained eye anger can be seen in the eyes and eyebrows.

Sadness and neutral expressions were moderately impacted by a mask, as were fear, surprise, and happiness, although to a lesser degree. Why? Take happiness, for example. Even if one’s mouth were covered you could still determine a genuine versus a fake social smile by the stretching of the crow’s feet (wrinkles that form around the outside of the eyes). Sadness can be observed in the forehead and eyes, as can fear and surprise. So, masks don’t quite hinder these emotions as much as anger and disgust.

What The Study Did Not Say

While the study pointed out the difficulties in identifying emotions in covered faces, here’s what the study did not mention:

  1. First, one of the major emotions neglected completely in this study—contempt. This is a curious omission, as contempt is a commonly displayed emotion. Indicated by a quick microexpression of an asymmetrical smile, contempt would indeed be obscured with a mask.
  2. Despite the fact that a face covering obscures much in the way of facial microexpressions, there are still numerous ways to assess emotion while someone is masked. Let’s take a look.

We at Merrill Research resumed face-to-face research toward the tail end of Covid’s Delta variant outbreak. Some respondents preferred to wear their masks. Even so, we were able to successfully identify other indications of emotion (including the feet). And when we see this behavior, it is always an opportunity to probe and learn more.

Contact us today to see how we can help you or your organization become proficient at finding out what people are really thinking when they communicate with you. 

Most Communication is Nonverbal. Are You Fluent?

1. https://phys.org/news/2022-02-masks-impair-nonverbal-individuals.html