In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. To slow the spread of the virus, several measures were introduced, including the use of face masks in public spaces. While the use of masks has played a role in slowing the transmission of the virus, it has significantly changed the way in which people interact with one another. However, relatively little is known about the impact of face masks on social perception.
Humans are a profoundly social species and routinely process rich social information in their daily lives. Quickly and accurately perceiving whether agents in our environments are looking at us, and identifying their intention to communicate with us, is a crucial human ability. Given the importance of gaze in perceiving social interaction, it is not surprising that humans exhibit a high degree of accuracy in perceiving the gaze of others. However, the accurate estimation of another’s gaze requires the integration of various facial features in addition to the eyes, including the orientation of the head and the direction in which the nose is pointing[1,2].
When asked to judge whether another person is looking at them, observers perceive a range of deviations from direct gaze as being directed at them[1,3,4]. The range of eye angles perceived as being directed towards oneself is referred to as the “cone of direct gaze” (CoDG). Where there is gaze ambiguity, such as when a person is wearing sunglasses or when head and eyes are incongruently oriented, gaze perception accuracy decreases, and the width of the CoDG increases. Although a wide cone of gaze wrongly identifies a person with averted gaze to be looking at us, it avoids the cost of missing potential interaction.
Obstructing the lower part of the face, including the nose and mouth, impairs our ability to recognise both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Additionally, the accurate perception of facial emotion is impaired by face masks, while some emotional expressions, including happy, sad, and angry are sometimes not perceived at all. Thus, while a large proportion of the lower face is obscured by a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, gaze ambiguity might increase and the accuracy with which we can judge where other people are looking, and specifically whether they are communicating with us, is potentially reduced.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who characteristically exhibit difficulties in social interaction, utilise eye information less than individuals without ASD when judging gaze direction, and show a narrow CoDG. During the pandemic, individuals with ASD might experience additional difficulties with gaze perception if gaze judgements are made based on eye-region information alone. However, it is unclear how face masks affect the perception of gaze in individuals with ASD. Reduced accuracy in gaze perception may lead to increased instances of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed opportunities for social interaction.
This study will investigate the CoDG, or the accuracy with which observers perceive the direction of another person’s gaze, while the lower half of the face is obstructed by a face mask, using computer generated stimuli that systematically vary in eye and head orientation. Additionally, we will assess the impact of face masks on gaze perception in individuals reporting high autistic traits.
The experiment will be hosted on Gorilla (www.Gorilla.sc) and participants aged 18-50 will be recruited via Prolific. Ethical approval has been obtained from the University of Reading.
Participants will complete a task in which they will be shown an image of a person’s face, either wearing a face mask or not (Figure 1), and asked to categorise whether the person is looking straight at them, looking to their right, or looking to their left. The head orientation, and deviation of the eyes from direct gaze, of the stimuli will systematically vary. In some trials, the head and eye orientations will point in the same direction (congruent trials), while in other trials, they will be oriented in different directions (incongruent trials). The proposed methodology will allow us to assess the width of the CoDG across different head and eye angles, and across both mask and no mask conditions. After completing the task, we will measure participants’ self-reported autistic traits via the Autism Spectrum Quotient.
Figure 1. Example study stimuli.
Studies investigating individual differences are likely to find small effect sizes. Thus, to investigate how autistic traits affect gaze perception across mask and no mask conditions, a sample of N = 750 participants will allow us to detect small effect sizes with 90% power. Participants will be reimbursed £6 for a 45-minute experiment. The study will be piloted with N = 20 participants to optimise the duration of the experiment and stimulus presentation, and to ensure the task instructions are clear and fully understood by participants.
The total estimated costs are £4,620 for participant payments (£120 for piloting and £4,500 for the main testing phase), and £1,540 to cover the Prolific service fee (£40 for piloting and £1,500 for the main testing phase). The total estimated costs are £6,160.
This study has been pre-registered on AsPredicted.org and a preprint of the article submitted for publication in a leading open-access journal will be published on PsyArXiv. At the end of the project, all materials, anonymised data, and analysis code will be made openly available on the Open Science Framework. A non-technical project summary will be made available on the lab website in a manner understandable by the public.
Although face masks have been employed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, they have, nonetheless, interfered with social communication and interaction. As the acceptability of mask-use increases worldwide and people feel safer in public spaces when they and others wear masks, it is likely that mask-use will continue. At the same time, it is vital to understand the unintended consequences of mask use on our interpersonal relationships, and to, for example, inform the design of masks to minimise the obstruction of our social cues.
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