We’re getting used to wearing masks, but figuring out what we’re looking at can stump even experts in face reading. “We use face recognition in every aspect of our social interaction,” said Erez Freud, a psychologist with the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Toronto. In the faces of others, we find clues about their personality, gender, and emotions. “This is something very fundamental to our perception. And suddenly, faces do not look the same,” Dr. Freud said.
That’s why Dr. Freud and colleagues decided to study how masks impair facial recognition. They recruited some 500 adults to complete a common face memory task online. Participants viewed unfamiliar faces, then tried to recognize them under increasingly difficult conditions. Half the participants saw faces with surgical-style masks covering mouths and noses, and scored substantially worse. In fact, 13 percent of participants struggled so much they may as well have suffered from prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Authors at the University of Stirling in Scotland posted a similar study: 138 adults completed online face-matching tests. When masks were superimposed, people performed worse — even when the faces belonged to familiar celebrities.
One of the main takeaways has been that facial recognition happens holistically, or all at once; we don’t scrutinize people’s features piecemeal. But all isn’t lost. Research shows that out of all facial features, we rely most on the eyes. Even if we struggle to know who we’re looking at when only their eyes are visible, we may still pick up information about a person’s identity and emotions.
“We also use other cues, and we can fall back on some of those other cues if they are helpful,” said Marlene Behrmann, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University. For example, we might recognize people by the way they walk or talk, or by their facial hair or hairstyle.
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Garden-variety lies and corner-cutting are not uncommon, but where is the boundary between this sort of behavior and more egregious dishonesty? In a new paper, researchers in Spain have created what The New York Times calls “a field guide of lying and cheating patterns”…at least among participants in simple lab experiments”.
Researchers instructed 180 participants to perform a coin flip, electronically, and report the outcome. If heads, they won $5; if tails they won nothing. Unbeknownst to participants, the research team could track each coin toss. After the trial, the researchers factored out everyone who got lucky and flipped heads on their one try. The remaining participants fell into distinct groups. Some 20 percent were honest, flipping tails and reporting tails. Ten percent flat-out lied, rolling tails and reporting heads, for the reward. A third group didn’t bother to roll at all, and reported heads — they were “radically dishonest,” as the authors put it. Finally, about 8 percent flipped multiple times until they got heads, and reported that result to collect the cash. This group was termed “cheating non-liars.”
“This [last] group is the most interesting to us,” said lead author Dr. Pascqual-Ezama of Universidad Complutense de Madrid. “They’re willing to cheat, but they don’t lie about the last roll.” The mentality behind this behavior fits well into a vast literature detailing the psychological outs that people give themselves when cutting corners or breaking rules, small and large. Beginning in the 1990s, the psychologist Albert Bandura called these rationalizations “moral disengagement.” It’s a process of preserving self-respect by justifying cheating or worse, with thoughts such as, “Everyone cheats, why should I be shortchanged?”
Dr. Pascual-Ezama says coin-flips and dice-rolls are hardly a reliable guide for how people will behave in the world, where they face much greater, and often competing, social and professional pressures. “Still,” says the Times, “that 8 percent seems like a good group to interview about the developmental and childhood sources of compulsive lying-cheating syndrome. If they’d come clean, that is.”
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“The email greeting, no one’s favorite thing to write even in the Before Times, has been exposed by the pandemic for its stodgy emptiness; a hollow, yet necessary, formality,” writes New York Times “Smarter Living” columnist Tim Herrera. “But now we’re forced to consider what we’re actually saying when we’re really not saying much.”
“When the pandemic first hit, it felt so crazy, because there were deadlines that still needed to be met, so you were emailing people,” says Liz Fosslien, author of No Hard Feelings, which examines how emotions affect our work lives. “Like: ‘Hello, hope everything is OK given that the world is crumbling to pieces. Do you have that paper I needed?’”
So, what is appropriate now? How can we write an email and be casual without seeming inauthentic, or be personal without breaking boundaries? Should we try out a little humor, even though for many there’s not much that seems funny right now? According to Fosslien, a lot of that depends on your recipient.
Before sending your next email, give it what Fosslien calls an “emotional proofread.” Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes. Consider what you know about this person, your relationship with them, and what they might be going through. “A quick gut-check before you hit send could save the receiver from unintended anguish.”
Do you have a go-to email greeting you are using these days, and do you ever adapt it according to specific circumstances? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.