Non-Verbal Communication and Facemasks: Can Gesture Use Compensate for the Effects of Facemasks in Emotion Recognition and Speaker Evaluation?

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The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increased use of facemasks as a preventative measure against the spread of the virus. Previous research suggests that the occlusion of the lower half of the face (such as with facemasks) can inhibit the recognition of emotions due to the inability to read complete facial expressions. Furthermore, recent studies show that facemasks can impact an observer's evaluation of the speaker, since much information is deduced from the face. Although facial expressions are an important source for emotion recognition and affective evaluations, studies also suggest that gestures hold enough emotional information so that emotional states can correctly be inferred from gestures alone. Moreover, studies show that gesture use had a positive effect on the evaluation of the speaker. Thus, this present study aimed to investigate exactly how the use of facemasks and gestures affect emotion recognition and speaker evaluation. More specifically, it aimed to answer the question whether gestures can compensate for the lack of visual information due to a partially covered face in emotion recognition and speaker evaluation. A total of 86 participants took part in an online experiment in which they were exposed to short videos of actors with and without facemasks, and with or without using gestures, while expressing (negative) emotions (anger and disgust). This study found that gestures cannot mitigate the effects of facemasks on emotion recognition and speaker evaluation. Findings did confirm that the recognition of emotions was reduced in conditions with facemasks, as well as confirm a buffering effect of facemasks for the evaluation of the speaker, showing more positive evaluations (of likeability and closeness) in conditions with facemasks than without (when a negative emotion was expressed). Furthermore, the use of gestures resulted in more negative evaluations (of likeability and trustworthiness), rather than a similar or more positive evaluation than without gestures.
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