What Is the McGurk Effect? How COVID-19 Masks Impact Communication

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Now that public health experts recommend that people wear masks in public due to COVID-19, trying to communicate with others through a mask can present many challenges.

When speaking with others through masks, what you're seeing and hearing is not in alignment and you may find it difficult to follow the conversation in the same way you would without masks—you might even misinterpret what is being shared.

Consequently, your brain may try to convince you that you're hearing something that hasn't been said at all. When this happens, this is known as the McGurk effect.

What Is the McGurk Effect?

This type of miscommunication was first described in 1976 by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald.

The McGurk Effect

The McGurk effect is a communication phenomenon that occurs when someone perceives that someone else's lip movements don't match up with what they're actually saying.

So, for some people, what they hear is completely different than what is actually being said because their visual input overrides what they are hearing and convinces the brain that they're hearing something completely different.

Research on the McGurk Effect 

In a study of the McGurk effect conducted by neuroscientists at the Baylor College of Medicine, participants were asked to keep their eyes closed while listening to a video with a person making the sounds "ba ba ba."

When the participants were asked to open their eyes and watch the same video closely but without the sound, they reported that it looked like the person was saying "ga ga ga."

And, in the final portion of the experiment, the video was replayed with the sound on. The participants watched and listened to the video and those who were sensitive to the McGurk effect report hearing "da da da."

Clearly, this sound didn't match the visual or auditory clues they reported from the earlier part of the experiment. Thus, the experiment was an illustration of the McGurk effect.

The McGurk effect occurs because the brain is trying to resolve what it thinks it's hearing with a sound that is closer to what it's seeing.

How Masks Impact Communication

When it comes to wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the McGurk effect is one concept that might be useful in understanding why not seeing someone's lips may make communication even more difficult.

For instance, the McGurk effect emphasizes that people use both their eyes and their ears to understand what people are saying—even if it does produce inaccurate results at times.

While it's true the McGurk effect may happen less frequently when a person's mouth is covered, it also demonstrates that when a person's mouth is covered others have lost a vital piece of the communication process—the other person's mouth and lips.

The act of covering the majority of your face with a mask can make it difficult for people to know how you're feeling or what you want to communicate.

Masks Disrupt Verbal and Nonverbal Cues

In general, communication is dependent on both verbal and nonverbal cues, but a mask interferes with both of those things.

For instance, masks often cover a large portion of a person's face which makes it difficult for people to read lips or process nonverbal cues.

Meanwhile, because the mouth is covered, it also can result in muffled speech. Both of these factors make communication with a mask even more difficult.

Additionally, under normal circumstances, your lips and mouth will give away your state of mind. But, with a person's mouth covered with a mask, people are left to determine how others are feeling with very limited visual cues.

This is especially difficult for the hearing impaired who often rely on lip-reading to understand what people are saying. But if a person's lips are covered by a mask, they struggle to understand what is being said to them.

How to Improve Masked Communication

While it's clear that people rely on both visual cues and sounds to hear and understand other people, it's important to learn how to communicate with others effectively despite the fact that you're wearing a mask.

Use Body Language

A great way to improve masked communication is to try and think about the parts of your body that are visible.

The parts that others can see include your eyes, eyebrows, hands, and your spine (which helps to control posture). All of these things help you use body language to communicate with other people.

In fact, according to recommendations made for emergency room physicians in Schizophrenia Research, the authors suggested that people rely on their visible body parts in order to communicate more effectively with others while wearing a mask—you can do the same.

The authors recommended some body movements you can rely on to improve communication while wearing a mask:

  • Eyebrows: You can lift your eyebrows to show surprise or form a "V" to display anger. In fact, people who are hearing impaired often use a person's eyebrows to interpret what others are saying.
  • Hands: You can use hand gestures to better convey what you're trying to express. For example, fast hand movements might show that you're excited about something.
  • Body Posture: The way you stand can say a lot about you may be feeling. For example, if you're hunched over you might be conveying that you're depressed. If you're standing tall with your shoulders squared, you might look tense or on high alert.

To better communicate with others while wearing a mask, remember to try and incorporate more body movements into your conversations.

Improving Masked Communication for the Hearing Impaired

For those who are hearing-impaired, there are masks with a clear shield in the front that allow them to read the lips of those they are speaking with.

Likewise, social distancing may have an unintended benefit too. With a Zoom meeting or Google Meet, those with hearing loss can use the closed captioning option, which allows for the words being spoken to appear on the screen as well.

Plus, applications like these allow for the person speaking to be isolated on the screen, which means in addition to hearing the voice and reading the captions, they are able to read lips as well. Consequently, they may find these types of meetings more beneficial than in-person meetings.

Some People Prefer Communicating With a Mask

It's important to recognize that some people may find talking with a mask on more freeing.

As the authors in Schizophrenia Research noted, for some people—especially those who are worried about having their facial expressions scrutinized—wearing a mask could make them more comfortable with communication. Thus, for these people, masks improve communication.

A Word From Verywell

While it's clear that wearing a mask during the pandemic is the best way to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, it's also creating some challenges with regard to communication.

However, with a little extra effort and some increased awareness of these challenges, you can learn to make sure your messages are being received.

And, if you're ever in doubt, just ask those you're talking with if you're making sense or if they understand what you're saying. Although it may take a little more time and effort to clarify things, in the end, there could be fewer miscommunications—even with a mask on.

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  2. Magnotti JF, Beauchamp MS. A Causal Inference Model Explains Perception of the McGurk Effect and Other Incongruent Audiovisual Speech. PLoS Computational Biol. 2017;13(2). doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005229

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