More frequent emoji use linked to more first dates and more sexual activity, study finds

People who frequently use emojis and emoticons in text messages to potential dates tend to also have more sex, according to new research published in PLOS One. The findings provide new insights into how computer-mediated communication is associated with relationship outcomes.

“I’m very interested in the incorporation of technology into our romantic and sexual lives, and how people adapt these tools to create or maintain a connection,” said study author Amanda Gesselman, the associate director for research and the Anita Aldrich Endowed Research Scientist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

“I was particularly interested in emojis because prior research on online dating has shown that shorter messages have the best response rate, which means that you have just a couple sentences to convey your personality, potential compatibility, and ‘hook’ that potential date. When we think about it like that, it seems impossible.”

“So my colleagues and I began to think about emojis as one-character tools to help create that connection and add more meaning to those short messages,” Gesselman said.

An initial survey of 5,327 single American adults found that only 28.2% of participants reported regularly using emojis in text messages with potential dates, while 37.6% reported never using them. The most common motives behind using emojis was that they give text messages more personality and make it easier to express feelings.

The researchers also found that those who used emojis more often tended to have more first dates and more frequent sexual activity over the last year.

A second survey of 275 single American adults — in which nearly all participants reported using emojis — found no significant relationship between emoji use and first dates. However, the second survey did find that emoji use was related to maintaining connections with a first date. Replicating the previous findings, the second survey also found a link between emoji use and sexual activity over the last year.

“In our study, more frequent emoji use with potential partners was correlated with more first dates and more partnered sexual behavior over the last year. And in terms of the most recent date, more frequent emoji use before meeting in person was associated with a greater likelihood of having a second date, having prolonged contact with that person, and engaging in both intimate behaviors and relationships with that person,” Gesselman told PsyPost.

Emoji use may be related to sexual activity because of its relationship to effective communication. The use of emojis can help convey meaning and intent in written conversations, which lack important cues such as tone of voice.

“It’s important to note that these were correlational studies and can’t speak to causality,” Gesselman explained. “We can’t say that using emojis more frequently causes more dating and sexual ‘success’, but it is likely that people who use emojis more often are more emotionally expressive and emotionally intelligent, a skill that tends to be important in forming satisfying relationships.”

“One caveat is that the context here is between two relative strangers. This means that using emojis more frequently with someone you already know and have some sort of relationship with may not have the same results.”

The study did not examine what particular emojis were being sent to potential dating partners. But the researchers did find some evidence that emojis could be overused.

“One especially interesting finding from these studies that wasn’t included in the paper was the ‘maximum acceptable amount’ of emojis per message (not per conversation). Our participants reported that on average, 3 emojis in one message is the top threshold, with higher numbers feeling less acceptable,” Gesselman said.

“We think that this mirrors real-life emotional sharing — think about meeting someone new and having them tell you all about their private life and sharing strong emotions with you before you’ve reached a point and time where that’s normal. It feels strange and overwhelming. It seems that people feel the same in the digital context when interacting with someone they don’t know yet.”

The study, “Worth a thousand interpersonal words: Emoji as affective signals for relationship-oriented digital communication“, was authored by Amanda N. Gesselman, Vivian P. Ta, and Justin R. Garcia.