Want to be understood with your mask on? These psychologists figured out the best one

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By , KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A team of psychologists at Villanova University has released the results of a study they did on the ability to understand speech when the person speaking is wearing the face coverings made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joseph and Cheyenne Toscano, a husband-and-wife team who specialize in speech and cognitive science, found that someone wearing a mask while speaking has nearly the same chance of being understood as someone who is not wearing one.

The Toscanos recruited 200 people online — as their lab was closed due to the coronavirus — to listen to recordings using headphones or ear pieces and write in a text box what they heard.

"We recorded those sentences wearing the different kinds of masks, as well as without a mask, and looked at listeners' accuracy with that," Cheyenne said.

She says they came up with the study idea based on their own experiences.

"When we were just starting to wear masks and thinking about how it felt to try to talk to people at the grocery store or anywhere that we might be out," she said.

The Toscanos used four different masks in their study: (a) an N95 masks, (b) a surgical mask, and (c-d) two homemade cloth masks.
The Toscanos used four different masks in their study: (a) an N95 masks, (b) a surgical mask, and (c-d) two homemade cloth masks. Photo credit Villanova University

The couple picked four masks – a paper surgical mask, an N95 mask, a fitted cloth mask and a pleated cloth mask – to wear while doing the recordings.

"Those seemed to be representative of the different kinds of masks that we wanted to look at that people might be using," said Joseph.

The Toscanos concluded wearing the surgical mask was the best for understanding speech.

"I think before we started the study, I had never even worn a surgical mask. I had only worn the fabric masks," said Cheyenne. "So I don't know that I had any predictions with regard to that."

The pair say their research was concluded before Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s medical advisor, suggested double-masking. Neither would speculate on how that might affect their mask-study findings.

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