The Impact of the Pandemic on Social and Emotional Health

How the Pandemic Has Changed Us, the theme of the 2021 Psi Chi Newsletter, features a range of articles from equity and inclusion in the department to how students practice mindfulness. Below is an excerpt from the newsletter, an interview with Professor Paula Niedenthal conducted by student Lara Klein. The full newsletter is available here

It’s undeniable that COVID-19 has impacted every student and faculty member on campus in one way or another. I interviewed Professor Paula Niedenthal, who teaches an undergraduate course titled “Human Emotion: Biology to Culture” and leads the Niedenthal Emotions Lab. We discussed how the pandemic has impacted the way people perceive, express, and experience emotions.

To help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, mask-wearing has become an integral part of everyone’s daily routine. However, by covering the lower half of your face, masks can have unfortunate social consequences by impacting how people express and interpret facial expressions of emotion. For example, when an individual’s mouth is covered by a mask, it can be difficult to interpret the meaning of a smile.

Paula Niedenthal

“I worry that we’re getting used to being a little bit anonymous as a function of having had our faces covered in public over time,” Niedenthal said. While more research would need to be done to confirm this, Niedenthal speculates that this feeling of being hidden under a mask could lead to less facial expressivity in the future.

Niedenthal anticipates that other long term effects of mask-wearing could include people’s tendency to use eye contact. “I do think it’s possible that some long-term effects have to do with how, when, and with whom we actually exchange eye gaze,” she said. “Eye contact is one of the behaviors that’s important in interpreting facial expression. That might sound obvious, but it’s not. You could look at any part of the face but the eyes.” Niedenthal postulates that some mask-wearers amplify their use of eye contact when expressing emotion because of their desire to be understood, while others may suppress their expressivity due to feelings of deindividuation.

Another positive long-term effect of mask-wearing is the potential to develop expertise in expressing and reading facial expressions solely from the upper part of the face. For example, people may use more of the muscles surrounding the crow’s feet when smiling to make their happy emotions more obvious. “I do think it’s also possible that we’ll develop a new set of strategies with the upper part of our face, or our voice, or our gestures,” Niedenthal said.

The Niedenthal Emotions Lab has conducted research studying the effects of masks on people’s interpretation of facial expressions. More specifically, , they sought to determine how much emotion people detect when looking at the facial expressions of mask-wearers. They found that mask-wearing can compromise the richness of emotional signals. This was especially true for emotions that use a lot of lower facial muscles, such as disgust, as opposed to emotions that use more of the brow and upper facial muscles, such as anger.

The Niedenthal Emotions Lab anticipates conducting another study to explore cultural differences in the consequences of mask-wearing on group membership. “There are cultures in which facial expressiveness is relied upon a lot for communication and there are cultures in which it is not because there’s already a lot of agreement, shared language, and conformity in reactions,” she said.

Additional research on the impacts of COVID-19 on our social and emotional health continues to be conducted. This research spans from examining the loss of social connectedness to whether the emotional impacts of the pandemic differ for people of different ages. It will be interesting to stay up-to-date on studies examining long term effects of the pandemic on our emotional health that we may not even be yet aware of.