The Effect of Masking on Social Anxiety

By: Ma’ayan Tzur  |  May 11, 2024

By Ma’ayan Tzur 

According to many, social anxiety stems from an excessive concern with adhering to social norms and being perceived well by others. Therefore, socially anxious people are often overly concerned about how their facial expressions come across or about behaving awkwardly. As a result, they may use safety behaviors, acts that would hide inappropriate expressions or behavior, in order to try to mitigate their discomfort. Interestingly, some of the safety behaviors included in the Social Behaviors Questionnaire and the Subtle Avoidance Frequency Examination involved concealing the face and wearing makeup or clothing to cover up blushing. Therefore, it is possible to see how masking during the recent COVID-19 pandemic can also be used as a safety behavior for people with social anxiety. 

To see if higher social anxiety was correlated with greater use of safety mechanisms, a survey was given to a low social anxiety and a high social anxiety group in a study by McManus, Sacudura, and Clark. The results found that there was a correlation. The survey also showed that both groups thought safety behaviors would help relieve anxiety. However, McManus, Sacudura, and Clark also performed a second experiment in which they tested if safety behaviors could actually increase anxiety. They did this by asking participants to rate their anxiety after an interview in which participants either used safety behaviors or did not. They found that there was an increase in anxiety when safety behaviors were used. However, their experiment did have potential flaws because it is tough to control and assess the use of safety behaviors. In addition, treatment for social anxiety requires exposure to feared consequences, like looking strange or socially inept, to work on being able to embrace the anxiety. Therefore, safety behaviors that attempt to prevent these feared consequences may be contrary to treatment. Additionally, the reduced anxiety from safety behaviors is only temporary and is likely to increase once feared situations become unavoidable. Therefore, if used as a safety behavior, masks may decrease social anxiety temporarily but increase social anxiety overall. 

A survey given to 460 adults in the UK found that most people believe that masks interfere with their communication abilities, cause more feelings of embarrassment, stress, and anxiety, and decrease feelings of connectedness, therefore discouraging interaction overall. As a result, mask-wearing for people with social anxiety, who are more worried in general about people misinterpreting their facial expressions, may actually increase their social anxiety. In addition, socially anxious people are more likely to interpret unclear social signals as unfavorable and have more anxiety surrounding uncertainty. Therefore, if other people wear face masks, it could potentially increase their social anxiety since masks make facial expressions harder to decipher and social cues harder to read. Additionally, masks obscure parts of the face crucial for interpreting information. Research shows that, with masks, many negative emotions can be misconstrued, and emotions can be perceived as neutral in general. Likewise, Grundmann, Epstude, and Scheibe performed a study where participants were asked to determine the emotions of people wearing and not wearing face masks. The results showed that people were more likely to correctly assess people’s emotions when they were not wearing a face mask.


Wearing a face mask can also be viewed as a social norm or as a deviant one. Like other social norms, mask-wearing varies across gender, race, age, and country. For example, studies have found that women, older people, and minority groups are more likely to wear masks than others. Furthermore, a survey found that 95% of Chinese respondents had worn a mask around the time of the survey compared to only 35% of Polish respondents. Similar to other social norms, masking/unmasking trends can also change over time. For example, a survey of 413 interviews with residents of five European countries in both the spring and autumn of 2020 showed that people judged others who did not mask in the spring. In contrast, in the fall, people judged others who did mask, showing that people perceived masks differently during different stages of the pandemic.  


As such, when mask-wearing is a social norm, people might be judged favorably when wearing a mask or critically when not wearing one. For example, in a study by Castelli, Tumino, and Carraro, participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness, competence, morality, sociability, and altruism of pictures of people wearing masks and not wearing masks at the time of the study. The study found that people judged mask wearers more favorably. Furthermore, in the same study, when people were asked to rate their agreement with sentences about mask-wearing such as “When I see a person who does not wear a face mask, I immediately think that he/she is selfish” or “Using the face mask is a sign of respect for others,” people agreed more with statements that put mask wearers in a positive light or which reflected non-mask wearers negatively. Therefore, social anxiety, which is centered around a hyper concern with being seen as socially normative, may decrease while wearing a mask when masking is the norm and increase while wearing a mask when masking is seen as socially deviant. 


In conclusion, it appears that mask-wearing for socially anxious people can be used as a safety behavior but may end up increasing anxiety, especially if mask-wearing is not seen as a social norm at the time. Additionally, when around other people wearing masks, it may be harder to read people’s facial expressions, which may further increase anxiety. However, more research specific to mask-wearing and social anxiety should be done in order to learn even more in-depth about its effects on social anxiety.