Masks May Cause A 15% Decrease in Our Facial Recognition Abilities


Our faces are crucial in how we recognise each other – one look at a person’s face can allow us to know their gender, age, or race. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now necessary in most countries around the globe to wear face coverings, such as face mask, in hopes of reducing the spread of the virus. However, this often causes issues in how we recognise each other, as important signifiers of our identity are found on our faces.

Previous studies have shown that face coverings of various origins (ethnically, religiously, and in surgical scenarios) which cover our mouths and eyes (crucial identifying features) disrupts recognition of familiar and unfamiliar faces. However, these studies give limited information on the ‘extent of impairment’ and which mechanisms cause these impairments. Therefore, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and York University in Canada carried out a study to figure these things out.

There were 496 participants in this study. Two experiments took place in which a simplified version of the Cambridge Face Memory test (CFMT) was used to test how well participants could recognise faces. The CFMT task had three phases: the first was recognising six faces from different viewpoints and participants were then asked to identify the faces. In the second phase, participants were shown the same faces from different viewpoints and lightings and were then asked to identify the faces shown to them. The third phase was  similar to the second phase,  however there were more pictures added in addition to the six faces shown.

In the first experiment 293 participants were asked to complete the CFMT task with the faces shown to them with a mask and then without a mask. In the second experiment there were 203 participants and there were two phases to this experiment. The participants had the first phase where they could familiarise themselves with the faces (this was called ‘Mask at study’) and a second phase where the participants were tested on the faces they saw (this was called ‘Mask at Test’). The participants completed the CFMT task in both experiments where there were masked faces shown in one of the phases for the participants, not both.

Graphical representation of experiment 1 (A) and 2 (B), showing masks reduce our facial recognition abilities. The higher the CFMT score the higher the levels of facial recognition. Dashed line= level of chance.

Experiment 1 showed that the masks caused there to be a huge decrease (approximately 15%) in how the participants recognised the masked faces in comparison to the non-masked faces. This ‘was accompanied by a weaker inversion effect, suggesting that the processing of masked faces is less holistic’. This shows that inverting a face may make it harder to recognise that face than just putting a mask on. Experiment 2 solidified the results that were seen in experiment 1, as it showed that only showing a masked face in one of the phases gives a similar decrease in the facial recognition abilities of the participants and therefore ‘ reduced holistic processing’. To conclude, these results show that using face masks does decrease our level of facial recognition.

This study has provided evidence that face masks (and face coverings in general) do actually reduce our ability to recognise others. Do you think this is true and have you found yourself staring at people in public trying to figure out if you know them or not? Have you been stopped by a ‘stranger’ only to find out it is someone you know? I know I have and was completely shocked. Faces are vital parts of how we build and maintain our relationships, it is strange that we do not have the privilege of seeing each other’s faces as we once did. Let us know in the comments below, what you thought of this article and if or how face masks have caused a decrease in your facial recognition abilities.

Featured Image : Pexels

Original Source : Freud, E., Stajduhar, A., Rosenbaum, R.S. et al. The COVID-19 pandemic masks the way people perceive faces. Sci Rep 10, 22344 (2020).

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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