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Face Masks and Empathy: Evidence Contradicts Concerns

Published: 15-05-2023

The ubiquity of face masks throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has led to questions about their psychological side effects. As face masks cover large parts of a person’s face, many concerns are focused on their potential consequences for emotion perception. Susanne Scheibe, together with her colleagues Felix Grundmann, Bart Kranenborg, and Kai Epstude, recently demonstrated that such concerns may be unwarranted. The authors found no evidence that face masks negatively impact people’s empathy motives (affiliation, cognitive effort) or cognitive (empathic accuracy) and emotional (emotional congruence, sympathy) empathy for dynamic, context-rich stimuli. At the same time, they found support for the idea that empathic processes are motivated.

The article can be found here.



Multiple studies revealed detrimental effects of face masks on communication, including reduced empathic accuracy and enhanced listening effort. Yet, extant research relied on artificial, decontextualised stimuli, which prevented assessing empathy under more ecologically valid conditions. In this preregistered online experiment (N = 272), we used film clips featuring targets reporting autobiographical events to address motivational mechanisms underlying face mask effects on cognitive (empathic accuracy) and emotional facets (emotional congruence, sympathy) of empathy. Surprisingly, targets whose faces were covered by a mask (or a black bar) elicited the same level of empathy motives (affiliation, cognitive effort), and accordingly, the same level of cognitive and emotional empathy compared to targets with uncovered faces. We only found a negative direct effect of face coverings on sympathy. Additional analyses revealed that older (compared to young) adults showed higher empathy, but age did not moderate face mask effects. Our findings speak against strong negative face mask effects on empathy when using dynamic, context-rich stimuli, yet support motivational mechanisms of empathy.