Masks Don’t Stop Us From Reading Emotions

New research on emotional expression shows that we can tell that people are smiling at us, even when their noses and mouths are covered.

Author: Barbara Palmer       


Even with our mouths and noses covered by masks, others can read most of our emotions.

As event venues in some parts of the world begin hosting trade shows again and as hotels and other venues share their plans for reopening, one thing seems clear: Masks will be with us for a while. Since April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended the use of cloth masks in communities to help stop the spread of disease, and on June 6, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its recommendations for the use cloth masks. Masks are part of the safety planning in all of the guidelines that we have seen for travel, transportation, and gatherings.

It’s reasonable then to ask the question: Can a gathering where participants are covering up half their faces with a mask really be considered face-to-face? There’s good news on that front. “We do not rely on seeing the mouth of the person we are communicating with to recognize emotion,” Ursula Hess, a dean on the faculty of life sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin told Scientific American’s German-language sister publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft. “Emotional expression occurs, even when our mouths and noses are covered,” she said in an article, “From Behind the Coronavirus Mask, an Unseen Smile Can Still Be Heard.”

When we smile, our facial muscles contract and laugh lines appear around our eyes — observing the area around the eyes is usually enough to recognize someone else’s feelings, according to soon-to-be-published research conducted in Hess’s lab. “People meet with their whole bodies,” Hess told the publication. “Whether a person is sad, angry, or happy is expressed not only through facial expressions, but also through the way they move and talk. You can hear whether someone smiles or looks serious.”

A smile “sounds bright,” she said. “This is because the changes in the shape of the mouth alter the modulation of our voices. A serious-looking face, on the other hand, sounds darker.” In the study, participants imitated the smile of another person even when that individual’s mouth and nose were covered, Hess said. We can recognize even subtle mental states, such as thoughtfulness, by the changes in expression around the eyes, she said.

There were two exceptions to the ability to easily read emotion through a mask: fear and surprise. In both, Hess said, we open our eyes wide, but we widen our mouths when we are afraid, and open them when we are surprised, making it hard to tell the difference when our mouth and nose is covered.

The attitudes around mask wearing in general also play a role in perception, Hess said. “Whether the person with a mask makes a positive or negative impression depends mainly on what you think about mask wearing. If you’re someone who thinks that the current protective measures go too far, a person with a mask may appear gullible, if not downright foolish. On the other hand, if you are a devoted mask wearer, you will probably be more sympathetic to the other person.”

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