Wearing a mask is the primary device for controlling COVID-19 infection. Many states, provinces and cities now mandate the use of masks in indoor public spaces to prevent the spread of the virus. More than 90% of American adults wear them, and some wear dual masks.

But how do masks affect social interactions?

It turns out that not only are we less likely to recognize each other, but we are also less likely to see each other as people. It can be difficult to accurately recognize emotions, and we tend to be overly aware of anger. Physical masks can even exacerbate racial prejudice.

Parts of the whole

Masks fundamentally alter face perception, making face recognition less accurate. They disrupt the overall processing, so instead of a unified whole, the face splits into a distinct set of features: two eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and chin.

Social psychologist Kurt Hugenberg said: “If your car is different from the other cars in the parking lot by a few millimeters or centimeters, you will never find it. “But finding your friend in a crowd is no problem” – thanks to the comprehensive processing.

Hugenberg says it allows us to distinguish each other easily, even though objectively our faces are extremely similar. It also allows us to extract other signals, like facial expressions. “And finally, this kind of comprehensive facial processing sends the signal that a person is a human. “It provides a quick recognition of who another person is,” says Hugenberg.

“When we weaken the ability to recognize a face as a face, it takes away – at least in part – some of its humanity,” says Hugenberg.

DW News looks at how face coverings affect our social interactions.

Faces of discrimination

This type of dehumanization also affects our perception of people of another race – what is known as the other race effect. People process the faces of their own race more holistically than the faces of other races, so they are better able to recognize and remember them.

Social psychologist Nicholas Camp measured how white participants responded to white and black faces. Even when the participants saw very similar white faces, their brains responded as if it were a new stimulus. Yet even when the Negro’s faces were very different, “they still responded as if they’d seen the person before,” Camp said.

“It happens early on in awareness,” says Camp. He notes that treating others as interchangeable is the first step towards stereotyping and discrimination.

There are two main explanations for the other race effect: exposure and socialization. People may have more experience with faces in their racial group due to discrimination, so the brain recognizes them better. Or people are more interested in their own social group, and the brain prioritizes understanding those faces over others. Both of these processes can lead to cognitive distortions.

“Individual segregation may have to do with how fear spreads across individuals,” says Camp. “If you can’t really distinguish between different members of different racial groups, it’s possible that negative associations or experiences just spill over when you meet other people.” This contagion mentality can allow cultural stereotypes to distort perceptual processes.

Feeling Emotions

Psychologist Amy Halberstadt studies the perception of racist emotions. She trained child actors to express very specific emotions and found that teachers misinterpreted Black children as angry more than white children — even when they weren’t angry at all. .

While different ethnic groups frequently misrepresent the emotions of other groups, the over-perception of aggression among Blacks reflects a systemic bias that may arise from a culture of fear. The fear of Negro fury is built by a long history of intimidation tactics and the transformation of fear among Europeans and Americans. This stereotype reinforces racist thought patterns about Blacks being less human or scarier.

In one study, teachers misidentified Black children as exhibiting more aggression than white children, reflecting systematic bias.

In times of pandemic, masks may only exacerbate emotional recognition errors. Psychologist Claus-Christian Carbon discovered that masks not only reduce the accuracy of facial readings, but also create specific confusions: disgusted faces are often interpreted as angry, and angry faces are often confused. Other emotions, like happiness and sadness, often seem neutral.

“For those who think they know what other people are thinking, the masks will exacerbate the mistakes they make,” says Halberstadt, potentially leading to more racist biases. than.

But if we can admit that the masks are inhibiting our perception, Halberstadt added, they could give us the opportunity to ask more questions.

Hugenberg also notes that motivation can mitigate the effects of other races. Simply tell white participants: “Be sure to pay attention to what distinguishes racially distinct group members.” Such guidelines will improve the ability to recognize faces of other races. This finding suggests that just trying harder can combat perceptual racism.

Masks are a necessary part of our daily lives during the pandemic. As a clinical researcher, I often have confusing, socially confusing exchanges with masked participants. My times are skewed or I can’t understand them. But now I see the mask as a reminder to interact with more humility, questioning, and a conscious effort to see the person beyond the mask.


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