If seeing other people in masks brings anxious (or angry) feelings, you may be having a very normal human reaction to loss of FOF signals. To understand and find relief, keep reading.
During WW2, when RADAR was developed, a system was created for airplanes to communicate they are friendly (not foe), so their own people wouldn’t shoot at them. The system is called it IFF for “identity friend or foe”, and a version of it is still used today.
The idea is something humans have done forever — deciding whether someone was trustworthy or dangerous — in short, FRIEND OR FOE (FOF).
FOF processing happens in the Amygdala, or parts of the brain that process facial expression and also control our instantaneous emotional responses. (See how this connects?) Just like the RADAR system, we send out a query — often by smiling at people — and then watch for them to echo it back, confirming they’re “not foe”.
Our intuitive reaction to emotions on others’ faces account for over 60% of our approach/avoidance decisions. The Dangerous Decisions Theory (DDT; Porter & Brinke, 2009) predicts judgments of trustworthiness occur instantaneously, and are experienced as “intuition”. It happens automatically, , and outside our awareness.
We start learning this at around 7–8 months, when we start to get anxious of faces we don’t recognize. According to psychology professor Joseph Durwin at California State University, Northridge, young children are “very reactive to a familiar body type with an unfamiliar face”. We’ve all seen the photos of a child, terrified by some sports mascot, and all the adults think it’s hilarious.
That SPECIFIC and primitive TERROR may be re-visiting people who are getting creeped-out by seeing others in masks. It may be the same way people discover a phobia they don’t realize is related to a long-forgotten childhood scare. And, just as we shouldn’t force a baby into the arms of the Disney character that terrifies them, forcing adults directly into close contact with masked people that are triggering a terror response is not the best way to help them.
There’s something especially creepy about faces missing some of the expression pieces, like the Faceless Monster in “Among the Damned”. And, Japanese folklore contains a creepy creature called Noppera-bo, or “faceless ghost” that looks like a human but has no face. Writers of scary stories understand this natural fear reaction to faceless characters, and use it in many ways — as do criminals, terrorists, and government thugs.
A lack of social cues (loss of FOF signals) can be terrifying because in our primitive past, it could have life or death consequences (more than now). So, being unable to get social cues via facial expressions can put us into fight, flight, or freeze survival mode.
I think Americans are also more sensitive to this than people from other countries because they’re used to more, and larger FOF signals. Ask a bunch of foreigners how to spot an American abroad, and the thing that comes up the most often is how shockingly outgoing we are. We smile broadly at everyone, seemingly “for no reason” (we’re looking for that FRIEND signal). Then, we initiate conversation with strangers (other people usually don’t). And, once we do, we over-share our feelings about everything.
When you see one of those YouTube meltdown videos, you can see the anxiety, panic, and anger triggered by losing FOF signals. You might notice the person melting down “crowding” someone who is wearing a mask.
We might interpret that as aggression, and it might be. But some of them seem to be searching for something — almost as if they can’t see well enough. They’re trying to get the social cues they need to feel safe, and can’t do it. They’re the one drawing closer, all the while emotionally escalating…
While we see the roots of this in children, the reaction in adults isn’t childish or silly. It’s based both in instinct, and in a long history of media — from horror and action movies, to government propaganda.
How many masked bad guys — from robbers, to terrorists, to secret police, and even executioners — do you think the average American has seen on television and in movies in their lifetime? In current news, we see scary images of “Antifa” and “Black Bloc” — and also of unidentified “Secret Police” — doing scary violent things.
There’s another reason we don’t like masked people: They might misbehave. The works of Zimbardo (1969); Diener (1976);, and Mann, Newton, and Innes (1982) show a link between anonymity and abusive behavior. Scientists have found a tendency for people to act rudely, illegally, or even violently when their faces and names are hidden.
So, MASKED PEOPLE ARE SCARY, and there are several “good reasons” to be scared of them.
YET MASKS FACTUALLY SAVE LIVES.
So, learning to conquer the loss of the FOF signals we’re used to — and to cope with the “creepiness” of people in masks — has literally become a matter of life and death. As we go forward it’s also a matter of social acceptability. We won’t be able to avoid wearing a mask, or being around people wearing masks, or to avoid the issue by arguing with “alternative facts”.
One of the main ways people learn to alleviate social anxiety (to get an FOF signal) is by smiling and watching for the echo of our smile. That’s the signal we know.
We teach children the protocol — to smile at others, and to echo back smiles when others do it first. We even have brain structures that trigger a mimicking expression. This is very old evolutionary stuff…
Panic attacks and intense anxiety are not usually dangerous to the people suffering them. However, when they interfere with safety precautions or evolving necessary social behaviors, they can contribute to both public health problems and relationships.
ANGER can come from anxiety or fear — a sense of danger — and can also result in some serious social or even legal consequences if a person offers an aggressive or anti-social expression of their panic or panic-induced anger.
So, it’s really essential to overcome anxious or angry responses to the loss of FOF signals that masks might cause. If seeing someone in a mask incites confusion — or the sense that you can’t somehow “see them”, you may be having a very normal reaction to loss of FOF signals. If it feels terrifying, triggering, or enraging, you may be having a stronger reaction. Experiment with the tips below, or contact a professional for help.
How to Feel Better:
Flight is OK: If you begin to feel overwhelmed, it’s OK to respond to the anxiety by retreating — just leave the area. It’s OK to walk away from a basket of groceries and come back later. That’s certainly better than becoming the next viral YouTube video …
Collect yourself: You can pause and take a few deep breaths. You might even close your eyes momentarily. If you look around and notice nobody else is running scared, everything might be OK.
Restore the FOF: Most often, we operate the FOF system by smiling and watching for the echo. We may even find ourselves smiling repeatedly under our own mask, and becoming unsettled because we’re not seeing the echo. NOTICE THIS, and have a good chuckle about it.
We should never force a child to interact with someone they are afraid of. And, we don’t have to do that to ourselves, either. We think it’s OK for a child to be frightened of strangers but we shouldn’t — so we have to feel weird about it. In reality, it’s normal, and admitting it to yourself will actually take some of the pressure off.
When people can’t safely take off their masks to show us their friendly faces, we need to “change to a clear channel” of communications. You can fire-off the very same FOF system in others unconsciously by substituting an exaggerated nod, even to the point of a slight bow. Try it out and notice how other people will nod back — and usually become visibly more relaxed.
In certain communities, and especially among young males, a chin-jut is also a recognized acknowledgement, and can be sent and echoed even when masked.
The need for FOF signaling is so ingrained, many people are adapting without giving it a single conscious thought.
On the hiking trails, I’m seeing lots of the old-fashioned exaggerated wave. In the past people would use the smile for FOF signaling — often along with some cheery verbal greeting. These days, people are waving broadly from 50 or more yards away, and often shouting a “good morning!” or a “thank you” for having given them the trail. The intuitive need for the signal is generating what’s needed.
You can also use your words. Speak in a cheery tone: “How are you today?”, or “That’s a nice mask you’re wearing. Where did you get it?”
You can use some of the tricks used by public speakers: If there’s a crowd, focus on the least-threatening one. And, imagine the smile that’s under their mask.
How to Help Others:
If you aren’t experiencing these kinds of problems, try to be understanding of others who are triggered into fear (which may be followed by protective anger) at losing their FOF signals. Try to help them recover that FOF information using the communications tips I mentioned above. Realize they’re probably not even aware of what’s triggering them.
Also, try to be understanding that denial of the pandemic might be their way of trying to cope with the non-rational but very real fear they’re experiencing. Realize that arguing the reality with them while they’re triggered isn’t going to be helpful.
Give them space, and speak in a calm, reassuring, and cheerful tone. This can be very difficult if they’re crowding, angry, or even threatening. Just do your best, and try not to be too angry with your own tone, as that’s likely to validate their fear.
As much as you may want to, don’t shame them for being stupid, as that’s likely to worsen their response. If there is sufficient social distance, consider showing them your (calm and reassuring) face.
If you or someone you know is experiencing intense fearful or angry responses to wearing masks or seeing people wearing them, consider getting professional assistance
If you find this article or our series of articles helpful, share them with others.