Mask-wearing can make it more difficult to recognize masked and unmasked faces of others, study finds

Recognizing someone may be more difficult when you are wearing a face mask — even if the person you are looking at is maskless, according to new research from York University.

Previous research showed that adults and children have difficulty recognizing faces when part of their face is obscured by a mask, such as those worn during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that doesn’t get better with time.

This new series of experiments conducted at York sheds light on how face perception abilities are disrupted for the person wearing a mask, regardless of whether the person they are looking at is masked or unmasked. So as new Omicron subvariants start circulating and people reach for their masks, researchers say they shouldn’t be embarrassed if they start having more difficulty recognizing friends and co-workers again.

“We wanted to investigate the effect of wearing a mask on face perception — something that hasn’t been explored before as far as we know — to see how the perception abilities of a masked observer changes in relation to others,” says Assistant Professor Erez Freud of York’s Faculty of Health, who co-authored the study with York undergraduate students Daniela Di Giammarino and Carmel Camilleri.

As part of the study, there were four different experiments involving 80 participants for each who were shown non-masked and masked faces while they themselves either had a mask on or off.

The results were surprising. Wearing a mask affects the ability to recognize the faces of others. The crucial factor was not whether the presented face had a mask on or not, it was whether the participant had their mask on or off that made the difference.

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