Facial masks affect emotion recognition in the general population and individuals with autistic traits

PLoS One. 2021 Sep 30;16(9):e0257740. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0257740. eCollection 2021.


Facial expressions, and the ability to recognize these expressions, have evolved in humans to communicate information to one another. Face masks are equipment used in healthcare by health professionals to prevent the transmission of airborne infections. As part of the social distancing efforts related to COVID-19, wearing facial masks has been practiced globally. Such practice might influence affective information communication among humans. Previous research suggests that masks disrupt expression recognition of some emotions (e.g., fear, sadness or neutrality) and lower the confidence in their identification. To extend the previous research, in the current study we tested a larger and more diverse sample of individuals and also investigated the effect of masks on perceived intensity of expressions. Moreover, for the first time in the literature we examined these questions using individuals with autistic traits. Specifically, across three experiments using different populations (college students and general population), and the 10-item Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ-10; lower and higher scorers), we tested the effect of facial masks on facial emotion recognition of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and neutrality. Results showed that the ability to identify all facial expressions decreased when faces were masked, a finding observed across all three studies, contradicting previous research on fear, sad, and neutral expressions. Participants were also less confident in their judgements for all emotions, supporting previous research; and participants perceived emotions as less expressive in the mask condition compared to the unmasked condition, a finding novel to the literature. An additional novel finding was that participants with higher scores on the AQ-10 were less accurate and less confident overall in facial expression recognition, as well as perceiving expressions as less intense. Our findings reveal that wearing face masks decreases facial expression recognition, confidence in expression identification, as well as the perception of intensity for all expressions, affecting high-scoring AQ-10 individuals more than low-scoring individuals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder* / psychology
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control
  • Facial Expression
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Masks*
  • Physical Distancing
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

This work was supported by a Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellowship awarded to FP, and grants to AK from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (2016–04319), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (435-2019-0749). The funding bodies had no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data and in writing the manuscript.