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COVID-19 ISO Insights

Study: Children Can Still Detect Facial Expressions Despite Pandemic Masks

February 1, 2021

By: Christopher Sirota, CPCU

During the pandemic a parent may be happy, sad or angry, but are their children learning valuable social cues from seeing a face covered by the pandemic's iconic surgical mask?

Apparently some experts were concerned, and subsequently conducted a study.

The Wall Street Journal has reported about that study (full study here) that included some concerning results, but generally concluded that researchers reportedly believe children may be adjusting to masked interactions.

The article notes that learning facial cues is important for growing children, so any obstacle to that learning would be of concern.

Firstly, Can Pandemic Masks Interfere with Facial Perception Among Adults?

In a separate study conducted by a researcher at the Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Germany,

[adult] participants [were confronted] with [masked] faces showing six different emotions (angry, disgusted, fearful, happy, neutral, and sad) […]. The results indicate[d] that emotion recognition was strongly reduced with the exception of fearful and neutral faces, which is compatible with parts of the literature employing different types of occlusion, for instance, by rigidly covering the mouth area with cardboard […].

Thus, within adult interactions, it seems that a mask can interfere with the perception of facial emotions.

Human Facial Expressions: Important from Birth and Some Likely Universal

The Journal notes that experts consider humans more dependent on facial expression to communicate social cues and emotions than any other animal, and that humans also appear to have more facial muscles to facilitate that communication than other animals; as such, it is unsurprising that human infants reportedly can perceive facial shapes just a few days after birth, hinting at how much humans are prewired towards learning to understand facial expressions.

Furthermore, The Journal highlights that a recent project by Google Research and the University of California, Berkeley identified some basic universal facial expressions. The article explains that the researchers used machine learning

to analyze six million video clips of people in hundreds of everyday situations in 144 countries. [The researchers] identified 16 facial expressions that seemed to be shared world-wide, such as joy at a wedding, sorrow at a funeral, amusement at a practical joke or awe during a fireworks display.

Some Good News

Despite masks being an obvious physical obstacle to such important visual information, the study with children, conducted by researchers at the Department of Psychology and Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin, actually reportedly concluded that the children in the study were not completely blocked "from picking up some cues of mood, intent and emotion."

Per the article, the results overall showed there was little difference in the children's ability to discern facial expression between a masked face and a face of someone wearing sunglasses, thus allaying some of the researchers' initial concerns. That said, the 80 children, ages 7 to 13, in the study, were "were only able to correctly identify sadness about 28% of the time, anger 27% of the time, and fear 18% of the time" from the images of masked faces.

Of interest, the article offers an example test here for readers to try.

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