New Way to Read Smiles in the Masked World: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

New Way to Read Smiles in the Masked World: Study


In a world full of face masks, how can people see or show smiles to everyone? According to a psychologist, people will need to learn how to read smiles with their eyes and voices.

The new method to read smiles was unveiled by a psychologist at Stanford University, a private research university in the US. Because face masks could block half a person's face, others must learn to read smiles using their eyes and voices of others. This technique could be useful in reading social cues obscured by masks. If not, they might miss high-energy emotions like excitement and enthusiasm. The findings were submitted to the APA PsycNet, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Reading Smiles in the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted numerous aspects of societies. From health to economic aspects, the disease effectively disrupted the lives of many around the world. And since the vaccine is yet to be developed, people have no choice but to continue their lives with face masks. Masks are one of the best ways to protect oneself from the disease. Yet it is also an efficient way to obscure emotions from others. So, how can a person read the emotion or intent of another without asking them to remove their mask?

A Stanford psychologist suggested learning a new method in the new normal: the ability to read smiles using the eyes and voices of speakers. This method could assist those who are reliant on smiles projected by others. Some cultures have been utilizing smiles as a way to determine if someone is friendly or trustworthy, and the technique would be invaluable in a world full of masks.

"We express many different emotions on our faces – excitement, calm, and happiness as well as anger, sadness, and fear. The face isn't the only channel we use to express our emotions – we use our words, our voices, and our bodies, but it is obviously an important one. In fact, scholars have been interested in the face as a channel for expressing our emotions since Charles Darwin, and it was the first channel that psychologists like Paul Ekman turned to when trying to categorize and measure emotion in the 1960s and 70s," explained Jeanne Tsai, the first author of the study and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab.

In the study, Tsai and colleagues explored an angle rarely investigated by previous studies in people's beliefs. The angle was how people's beliefs and values about emotion could affect their social judgment of emotional facial expressions of others. They assessed the emotions involved in that angle and they found the ones with the highest importance. More people tend to desire and value the feeling of excitement and other high arousal positive states (HAP), compared to the feeling of neutral states or calmness. The higher those states were, the greater the chance of agreeability.



Furthermore, among demographic factors, researchers identified the ones more reliant and less reliant on HAP states. North Americans tend to value HAP more than East Asians based on examined literature. Using computer-generated faces and profiles in a social media platform, researchers confirmed that cultural factors and ideals could influence the social judgment of others. Smiles, regardless of cultural factors, would remain a criterion in judging if someone might be friendly, agreeable, or trustworthy.

But in real-life settings, what emotions do faces show to others, either in a glance or deep conversations? Tsai revealed that various emotions could be detected on human faces. Emotions, such as anger, calm, fear, happiness, and sadness, could easily be recognized because the face reflects emotions normally. Though, the face was not an exclusive emotional outlet of a person. Body language and voice could hint if a person was happy, scared, or upset. And since face masks would cover the nose and mouth, it would be difficult for someone to analyze facial expressions.

For population groups, like North Americans, reading facial expressions behind face masks is unpleasing. To overcome that awful experience, they have to adapt to the new normal by observing the revealed part of the face and listening to voices. The wrinkling around the eyes and the gleaming look may indicate a smile. The tone of the voice may tell the emotion felt by the speaker if they are sincere, distant, or gleeful.

However, there are other ways to make things a little easier. Tsai cited recent examples utilized in Stanford like smiling pictures pasted on lab coats. As visual creatures, humans can feel a little positive by seeing those pictures. The same applies to smile patterns printed on face masks. Overall, it may be safe to assume that people are likely friendly and trustworthy even if their faces are covered by masks. After all, they are doing what they can to protect others by adhering to safety precautions.



The Role of Face Masks in the Pandemic

Even if the obscurity from face masks is abused by some people, governments cannot disregard the relevance of these items in slowing down the spread of COVID-19. Recent studies have shown the significance of N95 respirators, medical masks, and cloth masks in limiting the spread of the disease in communities. As barriers, face masks can lower the chance of exposing oneself to respiratory droplets, compared to wearing no face mask.

In the journal Nano Letters, researchers tested the filtration efficiency rates of different types of face masks. N95 respirators had the highest rate of 95% compared to other masks. Medical masks used in hospital settings exhibited a rate of up to 30% depending on the manufacturing scheme. Among fabric types, polyester had the highest filtration rate of 20%, followed by cotton at 20%, nylon at 20%, and silk at 5%. Both cotton and nylon require specific conditions to become efficient, while silk would only be a last resort if the former two were unavailable.

Statista, a German portal for statistics, highlighted the findings of a study published in The Lancet. The study showed how crucial face masks are in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Out of 172 observational studies analyzed, the risk of contracting the disease was 17.4%, on average, if a person does not wear a face mask or respirator. If a person wears either of the two, the risk would drop to 3.1% on average.

The social impact of face masks is not something to ignore. The cultural background of a person can influence their perception of others wearing face masks. In job interviews, for example, interviewers who cannot see the entire face of applicants may result in prejudice. Thus, it is important to further explore biases surrounding face masks.