On April 20, masks ceased to be mandatory in most public spaces in Spain. After many months of wearing them continuously, this decision was received, in most cases, with joy.
We are all aware that communication with them is more difficult, but why? Masks not only reduce the intensity of the voice that reaches our ears. They also prevent us from using many of the visual cues we use, unconsciously, to recognize, understand, and communicate with each other.
With a mask we understand each other worse
When we look at a face we tend to look mainly at the eyes and mouth. In fact, eye movement studies have shown that we cycle through these three elements forming a triangle.
Although we may not realize it, looks at the mouth are important for understanding speech. We usually integrate the sound message with the movements of the mouth that we see, until we reach a global perception. If these cues contradict each other, as is the case, for example, in the McGurk effect, we look for an intermediate solution, even if it corresponds neither to the visual nor to the auditory information.
As the mask prevents us from seeing how the speaker’s mouth moves, if we have doubts about what we have heard we will not be able to resort to visual information to clarify. This makes communication difficult, especially in noisy contexts or when we use another language. In the case of deaf people or people with hearing loss, the mask makes it impossible to use lip reading, preventing communication.
The mask hides important information about the speaker from us
Not being able to see the speaker’s mouth also has other visual effects. On the one hand, it makes it difficult to recognize the speaker’s emotions, which must be based exclusively on information from the upper part of the face, that is, from the eyes.
In this situation it is easy to confuse some emotions with others: positive emotions are confused with neutral ones, and those of disgust with those of anger. This happens because the mouth transmits a lot of information about some of the emotions. Transparent masks also interfere with emotion detection, but to a much lesser extent.
An important consequence of these difficulties in detecting emotions is that we perceive others as less close and we distrust those around us more.
Do I really know you?
The presence of masks also influences our ability to recognize the people around us. With the mask we have much less information to know that it is the same person. Familiar faces are not exempt from this effect: if we have always seen them without a mask, it will be more difficult to recognize them with it. And the same is true in reverse: it will be harder for us to recognize the people who introduced us when we all wore a mask now that it is easier for us to see them without it.
As if this were not enough, we are also slower to determine the age, gender and identity of the speaker when wearing a mask, and we make more mistakes when deciding that two images correspond to the same person. The fact that we pay more attention to the speaker’s eyes seems to improve our later recognition capacity.
Interestingly, we easily forget whether or not a person we just saw was wearing a mask.
The mask increases the attractiveness
The fact that the mask hides part of our face has, paradoxically, a positive effect at the perceptual level: faces seem more attractive. This occurs for both male and female faces.
Before the pandemic, faces with masks were considered negatively. This was because the mask was associated with illness. But, after getting used to all wearing a mask, the effect has been reversed. Even less favored faces look more attractive with a mask.
In part this is because the mask camouflages possible imperfections on the face. We know that facial symmetry has a great weight in the perception of beauty. Since our perception of faces tends to be global, we reconstruct what we cannot see using the good shape principle. This leads us to complete the part under the mask in an idealized way. Some recent studies have shown that if part of the face is hidden, for example with spots, a similar effect is obtained.
Vision is a much more complex process than we think. In thousandths of a second we are able to capture multiple details of the position of the mouth, the wrinkles of the eyes or the expression of the speaker. These nuances give us a lot of information about the other person and about the meaning of what we are seeing and hearing. When we can’t count on them, we know we’re missing somethingthat the communication does not flow. Without a mask the problem disappears.