How face masks can disrupt facial recognition — and daily life

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The pandemic is turning friends into strangers.

Thanks to preventative measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission — including social distancing and wearing face masks — the possibility of meaningful public interaction is all but gone.

“For those of you who don’t always recognize a friend or acquaintance wearing a mask, you are not alone,” said psychological researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Their new study, appearing in the journal Scientific Reports, found that our ability to identify faces we ought to know had been reduced by 15% because of face-blocking masks.

They also called that finding a likely “underestimation” of the issue on a mass scale. “The unprecedented effort to minimize COVID-19 transmission has created a new dimension in facial recognition due to mask-wearing,” they said.

The result: misidentification.

“This could lead to many errors in correctly recognizing people we know, or alternatively, accidentally recognizing faces of unfamiliar people as people we know,” said BGU professor Galia Avidan, an expert in facial recognition and perception, and that those who may already have poor observational skills will find the task of recognition “even more challenging.”

It’s not entirely the individual’s fault. Even the most attentive friends may not be picking up on nuances, which can be difficult to piece together individually.

“Instead of looking at the entire face, we’re now forced to look at eyes, nose, cheeks and other visible elements separately to construct an entire facial face percept — which we used to do instantly,” the researchers said.

‘For those of you who don’t always recognize a friend or acquaintance wearing a mask, you are not alone.’

The lifestyle has impacted people in very different ways, Dr. Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, told The Post. Echoing the BGU researchers, she said the subject deserves a closer look, especially for those with “less cognitive capacity, like folks who are older,” plus those with “developmental delays” who may already have difficulty with memory and retention or require instruction on how to read faces. Victims of trauma may also have a hard time feeling safe in public without the ability to read the room.

“It makes it a little bit harder to interact with socially,” Stern said. She found that the loss of some visual communication could make anyone “anxious.”

“The opposite is true for other folks,” Stern added. “By removing that social cue and that social frame, it’s actually relieved a little bit of anxiety for some people.”

For instance, highly recognizable celebs may now roam in public more incognito than ever.

“I can just run to market, run around Sephora, & go to Drs., & no one knows who I am,” said superstar Cher in a recent social media update, in her signature all-caps style.

Even commoners are relishing in their liberation from social norms such as regular showering, a clean presentation and greeting acquaintances on the street — as opposed to being compelled to run and hide. (We’ve all done it.)

This could be a boon for everyone, Stern suggested, by giving an opportunity to “slow down a little bit and learn about interacting with people in new and different ways.”

“I think this is really going to be a wonderful opportunity for us to develop our abilities to communicate verbally and more explicitly through words,” with the result of feeling “more empowered … more direct, and more assertive.”

Stern, who has seen a newfound boldness in some as a result of the relative visual anonymity, believes the benefits of communicating with each other more frankly could stretch beyond the pandemic — encouraging us “to connect with people a little bit more and to communicate your needs and to understand other people’s needs as well.”

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