That wearing a mask is an effective way of reducing the spread of COVID-19 is well-established at this point. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that people wear masks in public spaces where social distancing is not possible. That alone should be reason enough for you to mask up before walking out the door, but there is another possible benefit to wearing a face covering in public: not getting recognized by acquaintances on the street.
According to a new report from the New York Times, the widespread use of masks in the United States has made facial recognition increasingly difficult for many people — in some cases, to an extent that’s equivalent to having face blindness. In a recently published study, Dr. Erez Freud, a psychologist with the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Toronto, and his co-authors found that participants struggled to recognize faces that had surgical-style masks covering their noses and mouths. Of the nearly 500 adults who completed a facial-memory exercise online, 13 percent had so much trouble identifying masked faces that, per the Times, “they may as well have suffered from prosopagnosia, or face blindness.” Comparatively, only 3.5 percent scored that low in identifying people without masks.
A mask doesn’t grant total anonymity, of course. Research has found that people rely most heavily on the eyes when identifying someone (I can personally confirm this: Once, I was pretty sure I saw Jake Gyllenhaal walking by my old office in Tribeca, but he was wearing sunglasses so I couldn’t be 100 percent certain).
The report also found that the observer’s culture influenced their ability to perceive people wearing masks. Studies from 2009 and 2015 found that participants from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — countries where headscarves are more common — were better than American or British participants at identifying faces where only the eyes, nose, and mouth were showing.
Struggling to identify faces can present real challenges in identifying and communicating with people (it can be more difficult to read people’s emotions, for example). Given that we’re all in the same boat right now, though, consider the possible upsides. Imagine, for instance, walking down the street by your apartment and constantly crossing paths with the guy you briefly dated who really tried to get you into the Joe Rogan Experience. Previously, you’d both pretend to suddenly be consumed with something on your phones, and hurry past each other with heads bent. Now, you can both walk freely, spines straight, faces masked, blissfully unaware of each other’s presence, burdened only by absolutely every other terrible thing that is going on in the world. A dream!