Gerben A. van Kleef Ph.D.

The Social Mind

Masked Emotions

An overlooked way in which COVID-19 may disrupt our social lives.

Posted Jun 01, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the lives of people across the globe in sometimes unprecedented ways. In several countries, the use of face masks in public spaces has been made compulsory. Some argue that unqualified use of face masks might increase the chances of contamination, while others maintain that every little bit helps. What is seldom being considered in this debate is how wearing face masks might impact our social lives.

Humans are profoundly social animals. Many abilities we take for granted in our daily lives have evolved to facilitate life in groups. We learn at a very young age to pay close attention to the facial expressions of other people to figure out their needs and intentions and to make sense of what is going on in the environment.

When people around us smile, we readily infer that their intentions are positive, and the situation is safe. When they look frightened, we quickly understand there is a potential threat in our surroundings. When they look angry, we may realize we did something wrong. When they look sad, we offer consolation and support.

In day-to-day life, we rely heavily on such nonverbal cues to develop and maintain close relationships, to teach our children right from wrong, to ask for help, to sell products, and to coordinate speaking turns. What happens when such nonverbal communication is hampered by the use of face masks?

Besides the obvious discomfort of wearing a mask, interacting with other people whose facial expressions are—literally—masked can be challenging, awkward, and uncanny. Research suggests that suppressing facial emotional expressions puts a strain on social relationships. Participants in a laboratory study who interacted with another person who had been instructed to hide their emotions experienced stress and had a hard time building rapport. Respondents in a multi-year study on close relationships reported lower relationship satisfaction when their partner habitually suppressed their emotional expressions, and marriages in which this happened were more likely to end in divorce. When people don't show what's going on inside them, they rob others of crucial information needed for well-adjusted relationships and social interactions.

By covering a large part of the face, masks such as the ones intended to reduce the spreading of COVID-19 complicate social communication. Even if they leave the eyes uncovered, by hiding the nose and mouth from sight, masks severely hamper the detection of facial cues that enable smooth interaction. In times when people already experience considerable discomfort and uncertainty, losing access to critical information provided by other people's facial expressions puts an additional burden on our social lives.

Being surrounded by people whose faces and intentions we cannot read is creepy. Besides carefully weighing the medical pros and cons of the use of face masks by non-professionals, policymakers should consider the implications of disrupting nonverbal communication for individual well-being and social relations.