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UC Davis Study Finds Face Masks Do Not Impact Ability To Communicate

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – A UC Davis study found that wearing face masks doesn't impact the ability to communicate.

UC Davis tested 63 people and found masked speech was not more difficult to understand, and in some cases, the understanding was improved.

"The world changed… in March 2020," says UC Davis Research Fellow, Michelle Cohn. "We spend a lot of our lives interacting and speaking wearing face masks. We were really interested in whether wearing a fabric face masks might make it more difficult for people to understand others."

So, Cohn's team at UC Davis decided to get answers.

"We had two people produce the same sentences. Then we took the recordings and played them to a separate group of listeners who had no idea who was wearing a face mask," Cohn said.

She says what her team found is fairly simple.

"The way you speak when you're wearing a face mask impacts how well somebody else can understand you," Cohn said.

Cohn says when masked subject used a casual voice, "not hyper-articulate or over annunciate," wearing a face mask didn't affect whether or not the listener could understand the speaker.

When the subjects used clear speech, "slower, more exaggerated speech," Cohn says wearing a face mask actually made it easier for the listener to understand the person speaking.

"Speaking slowly really annunciating can help," Cohn said.

And finally, positive emotional speech, meaning higher-pitched or happier sounds, was more difficult for listeners to understand.

"The speaker is really in control of how well they're going to be understood," Cohn said.

In some cases, her team found the ability to hear or not to hear someone who's wearing a face mask could be psychological.

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"You see someone wearing a face mask and you think I'm not going to understand them then you probably won't," Cohn said.

We asked Michelle Cohn if she's noticed an ability for humans to adapt to difficult situations throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

"It looks like it that. We are overcoming the physical limitations of the mask," Cohn said.

The UC Davis research project is supported by the National Science Foundation and is in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

"Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation," the foundation said in a statement.

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