More than 90% of online populations now incorporate emojis and emoticons into their texts and emails, and researchers are wondering what the use of (~_^), (>_<), or =D can reveal about human behavior. Early studies have found that these typographic displays can aid in cross-cultural communication and provide insights into user personalities, information that could be of interest to disciplines ranging from linguistics to marketing. In a forum paper published on January 17 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, psychologists Linda Kaye, Stephanie Malone, and Helen Wall discuss emojis and emoticons as tools for evaluating how we relate to each other in the digital age.
During face-to-face (or FaceTime-to-FaceTime) interactions, verbal and nonverbal cues such as facial movements, voice pitch, and shaking fists are essential to understanding the meaning of what we are communicating. Researchers believe that emojis and emoticons are similarly used as visual aids to clarify and understand a message. “We mostly use emojis like gestures, as a way of enhancing emotional expressions,” says co-author Linda Kaye (@LindaKKaye), a cyberpsychologist at Edge Hill University in the UK. “There are a lot of idiosyncrasies in how we gesture, and emojis are similar to that, especially because of the discrepancies as to how and why we use them.”
Emojis and emoticons, popular on social media sites and messaging apps, aren’t just for millennials. A 2014 survey of 1,000 people in the United States showed only 54% of emoticon users were in the age range of 18-34. Communicating via smiley face may actually be more closely related to personality than age. “If you look at personality traits, like agreeableness, how amenable you are to other people, it seems to be related to whether you use emojis or not,” Kaye says.
Psychologists also want to use online data to understand how communicating via emojis and emoticons can provide insights into social inclusion. Depending on how we use emojis, these simple displays of virtual emotion can impact how we perceive each other. “People are making judgments about us based on how we use emojis, and they’re not necessarily accurate,” Kaye says. “What we need to be aware of is that those judgments might differ depending on where or with whom you’re using those emojis, such as in the workplace or between family members.”
Questions regarding emojis as a true portrayal of emotion remain unanswered, but in the coming years, fuelled by cyberpsychological insights–those that are within the context of how we interact with technology–researchers hope to understand how emojis might serve as the intersection between in-person and online interactions and how human nature can be reflected through digital media.