MADISON – Extending the face cover to keep COVID-19 under control does not prevent children from understanding facial expressions, according to a new study by psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It is easiest to understand the emotions of the people around you by taking all the hints that fall to them, intentionally or in some other way. Yet when people cover up some facial expressions, they separate some of those signs.
“We now have a situation where adults and children have to communicate all the time with people whose faces are partially covered, and many adults wonder if this will pose a problem to children’s emotional development,” says Ashley Ruba, a postdoctoral researcher at UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.
The researchers showed more than 80 children, ages 7 to 13, photos of faces showing sadness, anger or fear that were undisturbed, covered with a surgical mask or wearing sunglasses. The children were asked to assign emotions to each person on the six-label list. Faces were revealed slowly, and the coded pixels of the original image fell into place in 14 phases to better simulate the way real-world interactions may require stacking things from strange angles or passing glances.
Children were correct in relation to uncovered faces in as many as 66 percent of cases, which is significantly more than the chance (about 17 percent) of guessing one correct emotion from six options. With a mask on the way, they correctly identified sadness about 28 percent of the time, anger 27 percent of the time, and fear 18 percent of the time.
“Not surprisingly, it was harder with the covered parts of the face. But even with the mask covering the nose and mouth, the children were able to recognize those emotions faster than accidentally,” says Ruba, who published the results in the magazine today PLOS ONE with co-author Seth Polak, a psychology professor at UW-Madison.
Variations in outcomes reflect differences in the way a person conveys emotional information. Sunglasses made it difficult to recognize anger and fear, suggesting that eyes and eyebrows are important for these facial expressions. Fear, often mixed with surprise, was the hardest thing for children to spot behind the mask – which could complicate things by covering up traces like the shape of a surprise mouth. : O
If children can do better than guessing emotions even if the mask is in place, they will probably do even better in real situations.
“Emotions aren’t just transmitted through your face,” Ruba says. “Vocal flexions, the way someone sets up their body and what’s going on around it, all that other information helps us better predict what someone is feeling.”
All of this is added to children who grow in their emotional abilities, even if some of their interactions with others take place through a face blanket.
“I hope this will fix some nerves,” Ruba says. “Children are really resilient. They are able to adapt to the information they receive and it does not seem that wearing masks in this case will slow down their development.”
This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01-MH61285, U54-HD090256, T32-MH018931).
– Chris Barncard, [email protected]
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