People are more likely to correctly identify emotions when someone wears a transparent mask

People have trouble identifying the emotions of those who wear masks — but not when the face covering is transparent, a new study finds.

A joint research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital examined how the widespread use of masks affects the ability to communicate non-verbally.

They compared the ability of the general population, health professionals and deaf people to identify a person’s emotion through both a normal opaque N95 mask and a transparent mask.

For each group, people were about four times more likely to correctly identify an emotion when the person wore a transparent mask.

While wearing the opaque mask, nearly 80% of respondents from all three groups, the general population (yellow), health professionals (blue), and hearing-impaired health professionals (grey), were unable to correctly identify his emotion.

Researchers found that in all three study groups, the general population (yellow), health professionals (blue), and hearing-impaired health professionals (grey), about 80% of them could identify the correct emotion of the man wearing the mask if it was transparent. When the mask was opaque, they could only correctly identify his emotion 20% of the time

Each survey participant was shown a video of a smiling man.  In one he wore a transparent mask (right), in the other he wore a more standard opaque mask (left)

Each survey participant was shown a video of a smiling man. In one he wore a transparent mask (right), in the other he wore a more standard opaque mask (left)

Researchers, who presented their findings Monday in JAMA network opened, recruited 1,000 participants, who divided into three groups.

The first was the general population, a group that was not used to wearing or handling people in masks before the pandemic.

There was also a group of health professionals, who were used to communicating regularly with people wearing masks in the workplace, even pre-pandemic.

The latter group consisted of hearing-impaired health professionals, who regularly use non-verbal communication and can recognize some signs of emotion better than others.

In total, there were 1,000 participants in the general population, 123 as caregivers and 45 deaf or hard of hearing caregivers.

While the transparent masks increased people's ability to correctly identify each other's emotions, only 45% of the general population said they would be comfortable with using those types of masks on a regular basis.

While the transparent masks increased people’s ability to correctly identify each other’s emotions, only 45% of the general population said they would be comfortable with the regular use of those types of masks.

They were shown video clips of one of the study authors smiling while wearing a mask, half wearing an opaque mask and the other half wearing a transparent mask.

The participants were asked if they could identify which emotion the man was displaying, whether they knew happy, sad or not.

For the general population, which would have the lease experience of reading facial expressions through masks, only 20 percent correctly identified the man as happy, and nearly 70 percent responded that they weren’t sure.

By comparison, 78 percent of the general population — nearly four times as many — could recognize their emotion when wearing a transparent mask.

A similar trend was also found in the other two study groups.

Just over 20 percent of health professionals could identify the man as happy when wearing an opaque mask, and nearly 80 percent said they didn’t know.

When he wore a transparent mask, 88 percent were able to recognize his emotions.

“Our research found that there is a need to address communication barriers related to mask use, especially among people who are not [hearing impaired]’, researchers wrote.

“In addition, we found that the use of transparent masks is widely accepted and can help improve communication in both the public and healthcare settings.”

For the deaf or hard of hearing, 84 percent could recognize their emotion through the transparent mask, compared to only 24 percent through the opaque mask.

While this might lead many to believe that transparent masks should be implemented in healthcare facilities, a majority of patients still do not prefer it.

The researchers found that only 45 percent of the general population was positive about interacting with a doctor wearing a transparent mask.

Thirty percent said they had neutral feelings toward the masks and a very small percentage reported negative feelings.

However, health professionals themselves indicated that they would be willing to wear them, with 62 percent of general health professionals and 82 percent with a hearing impairment reporting positive feelings.

In the UK, millions of children returned to school in early September without face coverings, which parents say is important for learning to communicate.  Pictured: Lauren McLean, 15, and Felix Dima, 13, at the Excelsior Academy in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, September 22

In the UK, millions of children returned to school in early September without face coverings, which parents say is important for learning to communicate. Pictured: Lauren McLean, 15, and Felix Dima, 13, at the Excelsior Academy in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, September 22

The findings have implications for children in schools who are developmentally delayed because they cannot discern emotion behind masks.

Unlike in the US, millions of children in the UK returned to schools in early September without the need for face coverings.

And while masks are a politically divisive issue in America, members of both the Conservative and Labor parties in the UK have stated that wearing masks prevents children from communicating and socializing.

It’s important for kids,” says Morgane Kargadouris, whose daughter attends Notting Hill Preparatory School in London. The New York Times of children who do not wear masks.

“So much of what they learn is through expressions and through contact they have with people.”

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