We see people wearing masks in horror movies. Robbers wear masks. Dentists and surgeons wear masks. In Leviticus 13:45, God tells the lepers to wear masks that cover their mouths. All of these situations involve fear, loss, or ill health.
Even when considering vigilante superheroes — like Spiderman, Batman, or Dare Devil — who wear masks, or kids on Halloween, there’s still a sense of anonymity and operating outside the norms of society.
But now Americans have been encouraged (or required, depending on where you live) to wear masks if you leave your house as a response to COVID-19. Setting aside the civil liberties part of this issue, what does mask-wearing do to you and to your interactions with other people?
Wearing a Mask Can Change Your Behavior
The former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, has studied how a sense of anonymity — from wearing a mask, hood, or uniform — changes a person’s behavior.
"You minimize social responsibility," Zimbardo said. "Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There's also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can't see you, and you lose your humanity."
Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you feel like you're not individually liable.
This psychological effect of plausible deniability, of even creating another persona, has been demonstrated throughout history. Revelers donned masks to let loose at Carnival celebrations throughout Europe. The Catholic Church discouraged, complained about, and condemned masks at the medieval celebration the Feast of Fools to try to curb licentious behavior.
Even kids trick-or-treating in masks have proven that masks motivate them to break the rules. In a 1979 study, Purdue University psychologists tracked 58 children on Halloween, some of whom were masked. The children were told to take only two pieces of candy out of the bowl, but “the kids in masks were way more likely to take more candy than they were supposed to: 62% of the children in masks broke the two-candy limit, compared to 37% of those whose faces were visible.”
Beyond the increased likelihood of debauchery and rule-breaking, the anonymity of masks can make people feel like they can get away with violence. Harvard anthropologist John Watson investigated 23 warrior cultures to see if warriors who wore masks or face paint treated their captives and their victims differently. He found that “80% of warriors in these cultures were found to be more destructive — for example, killing, torturing or mutilating their victims — than unpainted or unmasked warriors.”
The anonymity of masks can make people feel like they can get away with violence.
Wearing masks in a group in public has been illegal in New York since 1845 to discourage acts of violence. Back in the 19th century, some disguised and masked tenant farmers fought against unfair leases, which often involved tarring and feathering their landlord, but occasionally, murder. The law was updated in 1965 to prevent KKK rallies. (The law had to be appealed so people could wear masks for COVID and not get arrested.)
Noticeably, all these instances of violence involved groups of masked individuals. So your chance of experiencing a behavior change by donning a mask is lower if you avoid group activities like rallies, marches, and protests.
Wearing a Mask Impedes Interpersonal Communication
One effect that you can’t avoid is the additional layer of interference a mask brings to interpersonal communication. We’ve all smiled at someone and then realized they can’t see it, or tried to make small talk with the cashier and failed to be understood. Furthermore, only seeing half of someone’s face makes it difficult to read their emotional state.
We heavily rely on the mouth and the eye regions to successfully identify an emotion.
One German study discovered that we heavily rely on the mouth and the eye regions to successfully identify an emotion. Fear and sadness are mainly expressed around the eyes, while disgust and happiness are mainly expressed around the mouth. Some emotions are recognized by contrasting the upper face and the lower face. The researchers noted that we’re most likely to confuse anger with disgust and fear with surprise when we can’t see the whole face.
Another study showed that our confidence and our accuracy in reading someone else’s emotions dropped when the other person is wearing a mask. The study also found that specific emotions were regularly misinterpreted: disgust was read incorrectly as anger, and happy, sad, and anger were read as neutral. We have to keep this possibility of misinterpreting the other’s emotions in mind.
There's a dehumanizing aspect to wearing masks. We're more likely to act badly when we feel anonymous, which is why mobs and riots often create the most havoc. Some people feel emboldened to treat others badly because the anonymity of the mask gives them false courage. It also divorces us from experiencing the other people around us. We can't see the smile of a stranger or the frown of someone who needs help. We can debate the health benefits of wearing masks, but we should include a discussion of the psychological risks as well.