Faces are one of the key ways that we obtain social information about others. They allow people to identify individuals, understand conversational cues, and make judgements about others’ mental states. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, widespread mask-wearing practices were implemented, causing a shift in the way Americans typically interact. This introduction of masks into social exchanges posed a potential challenge—how would people make these important inferences about others when a large source of information was no longer available? We conducted two studies that investigated the impact of mask exposure on emotion perception. In particular, we measured how participants used facial landmarks (visual cues) and the expressed valence and arousal (affective cues), to make similarity judgements about pairs of emotion faces. Study 1 found that in August 2020, participants with higher levels of mask exposure used cues from the eyes to a greater extent when judging emotion similarity than participants with less mask exposure. Study 2 measured participants’ emotion perception in both April and September 2020 –before and after widespread mask adoption—in the same group of participants to examine changes in the use of facial cues over time. Results revealed an overall increase in the use of visual cues from April to September. Further, as mask exposure increased, people with the most social interaction showed the largest increase in the use of visual facial cues. These results provide evidence that a shift has occurred in how people process faces such that the more people are interacting with others that are wearing masks, the more they have learned to focus on visual cues from the eye area of the face.
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