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Friday, 12 Jun 2020

The Psychology of Wearing a Face Mask

By Dr Becky Spelman

Until or unless there is a vaccine for Covid-19, it is likely that we will be expected to wear face masks in crowded places such as public transport. The WHO now advises that anyone in a crowded, enclosed space, such as a supermarket or a train carriage, should wear a mask to reduce the transmission of the highly contagious virus. So, how will this affect us psychologically?

Human beings are pre-programmed to recognise faces. Tiny babies, as soon as they are born, show a preference for looking at human faces above anything else, and they will even stare at a rudimentary drawing of a face if it is shown to them.

The most basic form of communication between humans takes the form of facial expressions. Even when we are with people who speak languages that we do not understand, we can easily interpret facial expressions such as smiles and frowns. Facial expressions are a simple universal language that we instinctively understand. For this reason, there is often widespread opposition to wearing masks in public, and mask-wearing can be one of the most difficult public safety measures to enforce (the issue of face-covering for religious or cultural reasons is often objected to by people from different backgrounds on a similar basis, although of course this is a more complex matter in many ways and is beyond the scope of this article).

Because we cannot see most of the face when someone is wearing a mask, our ability to understand people is reduced considerably. We are forced to rely only on language and gesture, which limits the extent to which we can interpret nuance, with some input from interpreting eye movements, which are still visible above the mask.

Certainly, there is a risk that, in a society in which a lot of people are wearing masks, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation. People may feel that someone is being aggressive towards them, when there is no real intent of aggression, and may react accordingly, potentially leading to all sorts of difficult, and even dangerous, situations.

One cohort of people who may feel relatively positive about wearing a mask, however, are those who suffer from conditions such as social anxiety. Some of these people might even feel less vulnerable when they are in public, and more comfortable venturing out because they do not have to reveal themselves to the public at large.


For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.


Cohn, Samuel. Face masks: what the Spanish flu can teach us about making them compulsory. Retrieved from:

Wegrzyn, Martin; Vogt, Maria; Kireclioglu, Berna; Schneider, Julia and Kissler, Johanna. Mapping the emotional face. How individual face parts contribute to successful emotion recognition. PLoS One v.12(5); 2017 PMC5426715

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