Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications
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The widespread use of face masks in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic has promoted research on their effect on the perception and recognition of faces. There is growing evidence that masks hinder the recognition of identity and expression, as well as the interpretation of speech from facial cues. It is less clear whether and in what manner masks affect the perception of age from facial cues. Recent research has emphasized the role of the upper region of the face, a part not covered by a mask, in the evaluation of age. For example, smile-related wrinkles in the region of the eyes make smiling faces appear older than neutral faces of the same individuals (the aging effect of smiling, AES). In two experiments, we tested the effect of face masks on age evaluations of neutral and smiling faces in a range of different age groups from 20 to 80 years. The results showed that smiling faces were perceived as older than neutral faces even when individuals were wearing a face mask—and there was no effect of masks on bias in age evaluations. Additional analyses showed reduced accuracy in age evaluations for smiling compared to neutral faces and for masked compared to unmasked faces. The results converge on previous studies emphasizing the importance of the upper region of the face in evaluations of age.