Wearing COVID face masks has no effect on everyday social exchanges

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A new study just published in Journal of Applied Social Psychology debunks the idea that wearing a mask to slow the spread of disease damages most everyday social exchanges.

Reporting results from an experiment with 250 university students carried out in 2012 -; before masks became fodder for political and cultural angst -; psychology researchers based at the University of Kansas and Wellesley College found mask wearing "had no effect on the ease, authenticity, friendliness of the conversation, mood, discomfort or interestingness" of interactions between students.

Each student was instructed to chat with another participant who seemed like themselves, though the pair had to share the same gender and mask condition. Participants chatted with their partner for two minutes about their favorite vegetables, whether Pluto is a planet or the number of credits needed for their major. Afterward, they reported on their interactions via questionnaire.

Actually, we were disappointed at the time because covering the face did almost nothing. It just really didn't change it much. It didn't make conversations awkward. People didn't think it was weird. They didn't make the conversations unfriendly. And they still found people to meet. There's a little slippage of how similar the other person was to them, but it was very modest. This was in 2012, and we set aside the data because we did this big interaction and we got nothing. Now, many years later we discover, 'Oh, it's really quite meaningful.' People have the skills to look past things that block the face -; a mask, a hat, sunglasses and so on. We're still able to get through to people."

Chris Crandall, lead author, professor of psychology at KU

When choosing a discussion partner who seemed similar to themselves, masked participants only reported a significantly different experience from their unmasked counterparts in relying on the "look of their face and head" when picking. In important other measures, like "their friendliness," or "seemed similar to me," the masked vs. unmasked state made little difference, researchers found.

Previously, the team had run a similar student experiment, but instead of obscuring faces, half of the participants' torsos were hidden with black plastic bags -; a hindrance that skewed normal social interactions much more than the experiment with the masks, hats and shades.

"I was surprised by the results," said co-author Angela Bahns, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College. "We assigned people to wear masks or not because we thought masks would have an effect on who people interacted with and how the conversation went. Wearing the mask had almost no effects at all, except that people recognized they were wearing one. I think the biggest lesson to be learned from our study is that there is nothing inherent about wearing a mask that interferes with everyday social interactions. People -; mostly grown-ups -; have made mask wearing controversial in the era of COVID, politicizing the use of face masks so that the choice to wear one or not carries excess social meaning."

In 2012, mask wearing hadn't yet become a hot-button political issue, but the researchers did gather survey data on participants' political leanings, among many other traits. At the time, a student's stance along the conservative-liberal divide had no relationship with their attitude toward wearing a mask. "Wearing a mask, a hat and sunglasses did not impede liberals or conservatives," the team reported. Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at KU, also served as a co-author.

"The research we did in 2012 can't be done today," Crandall said. "There's just no way to do it, because when you say, 'Put on a mask,' people say, 'Well, OK, you liberal Fauci follower, you're a sheep for putting on the mask.' Masks are suffused with meaning -; political, social, health -; in a way they weren't then. Today, putting on a mask is a loss of liberty, so you might expect Republicans or conservatives could be more sensitive to losses of liberty and freedom -; here, it was 'deep-state' professors trying to control their actions. You might think that conservatives, when assigned to the mask experiment, might be more resentful or more upset. We found nothing at all like that. So, I don't think putting on mask is a fundamental loss of freedom, except in the context of being told by Big Government to put on the mask for the purposes of safety to self and others."

Stripped of today's political and social significance, wearing masks didn't interrupt social interaction for people of any political stripe in 2012. Indeed, the authors conclude, "The data have direct public health and policy implications -; wearing masks does not end normalcy."

"What do masks really do to social interactions? Well, at least for the everyday kind of interactions, you know, talking to somebody at the checkout counter, the grocery store, at the gas station or walking around -; everyday kind of stuff with stranger interactions -; masks just don't really do much at all in our setting," Crandall said. "The question is, 'What does masking up do?' Aside from the underlying political effects, the answer seems to be not very much. Look, if you put on a mask and you go out on a first date, that's going to be more troublesome. But for most of the everyday interactions, which I think our experiment models, where you go talk to somebody about something not so important, we find masking isn't anywhere near as disruptive as some people think -; and that's really the good news."

Journal reference:

Crandall, C.S., et al. (2022) Updated Health Warnings for Alcohol — Informing Consumers and Reducing Harm. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12918.


  1. Joshua Feliciano Joshua Feliciano United States says:

    This was a Far-fetched, out of touch, BS article... Trying to create yet another "conservatives" vs "liberals" narrative out of nothing. The argument (if any) was more about the spred COVID, and that masks a.) didn't have the power stop the spread of the virus b.) prohibited them from breathing claiming health risks and c.)Was against their rights as an American and obviously as a human to be forced to wear them. There were little to no claims or complaints (during the COVID era) about masks hindering communication or affecting social interaction. We know this because each October 31st, (in America anyway) we celebrate Halloween. A vast majority of people wear a type of mask or face covering on this holiday and go door to door trick or treating. Most walk away with exactly what they asked for...candy. Masks are not the enemy.

    • Gina Van Luven Gina Van Luven United States says:

      There is a huge difference between wearing a mask for a couple of hours on a holiday and wearing it day after day. I don't understand how you could think it would not hinder communication, as it most certainly does!

    • Stark RavenMad Stark RavenMad United States says:

      This is a BS article but not for the reasons you stated. You’re comparing wearing a Halloween mask for a couple of hours, which by the way gets uncomfortable for a lot of people, to wearing a mask for every single social interaction you encounter and possibly eight hours on end. And you say that doesn’t have any affect on social interaction. You must’ve gone to the Biden school for intellectuals

  2. Michael Ritzker Michael Ritzker Canada says:

    Just look at the sample. University students are pre-indoctrinated automatons with no character or common sense. Masks creep me out and I feel uncomfortable engaging with the weirdos who continue to use them, and I am far from alone.

    • Stark RavenMad Stark RavenMad United States says:

      At this point in time I think people wearing masks look like fools.  I see a lot of very elderly people without them, then there are the freaks still wearing one when they’re the only one around for miles😵‍💫

  3. Lin Holmes Lin Holmes United States says:

    This study is very limited and gave the subjects the topic of which to start and have a conversation. This in no way represents to me what it is actually like interacting with others when wearing a face mask. In my own personal life I tend to avoid conversation, avoid places,  and my posturing and conversation tends to be much shorter and very flat in comparison to my normal everyday interactions without one.  In order for this study to apply it would need to be done on a larger scale not on a college campus and watching everyday interaction from afar.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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