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How does the presence of a surgical face mask impair the perceived intensity of facial emotions?

Tsantani, M., Podgajecka, V., Gray, K. L. H. and Cook, R. (2022) How does the presence of a surgical face mask impair the perceived intensity of facial emotions? PLoS ONE, 17 (1). e0262344. ISSN 1932-6203

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0262344


The use of surgical-type face masks has become increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent findings suggest that it is harder to categorise the facial expressions of masked faces, than of unmasked faces. To date, studies of the effects of mask-wearing on emotion recognition have used categorisation paradigms: authors have presented facial expression stimuli and examined participants’ ability to attach the correct label (e.g., happiness, disgust). While the ability to categorise particular expressions is important, this approach overlooks the fact that expression intensity is also informative during social interaction. For example, when predicting an interactant’s future behaviour, it is useful to know whether they are slightly fearful or terrified, contented or very happy, slightly annoyed or angry. Moreover, because categorisation paradigms force observers to pick a single label to describe their percept, any additional dimensionality within observers’ interpretation is lost. In the present study, we adopted a complementary emotion-intensity rating paradigm to study the effects of mask-wearing on expression interpretation. In an online experiment with 120 participants (82 female), we investigated how the presence of face masks affects the perceived emotional profile of prototypical expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. For each of these facial expressions, we measured the perceived intensity of all six emotions. We found that the perceived intensity of intended emotions (i.e., the emotion that the actor intended to convey) was reduced by the presence of a mask for all expressions except for anger. Additionally, when viewing all expressions except surprise, masks increased the perceived intensity of non-intended emotions (i.e., emotions that the actor did not intend to convey). Intensity ratings were unaffected by presentation duration (500ms vs 3000ms), or attitudes towards mask wearing. These findings shed light on the ambiguity that arises when interpreting the facial expressions of masked faces.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Perception and Action
ID Code:102381
Publisher:Public Library of Science


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