New research suggests that text messaging might offer a potentially more expressive mode of communication than face-to-face interactions for people with alexithymia. The study also found that individuals with high alexithymia demonstrated both greater and reduced variety in the use of emojis to express emotions, depending on the specific facets of alexithymia and the emotional context. The findings appear in the scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Alexithymia is a psychological construct that refers to a personality trait or a cognitive-emotional characteristic characterized by a person’s difficulty in recognizing, understanding, describing, and expressing their own emotions. Individuals with alexithymia often have trouble identifying and verbalizing their feelings, which can lead to challenges in emotional awareness and communication.
In today’s digital age, much of our interpersonal communication happens through smartphones and text messages. Typed words provide a verbal means of emotional expression, while emojis serve as non-verbal cues to convey emotions in digital conversations. The researchers noted that there were few previous studies examining how expressivity in text messages differs among individuals with varying levels of alexithymia.
“Alexithymia – characterized by difficulty in identifying and describing one’s internal states – occurs in up to 19% of the general population and its impact on self-expression and interpersonal misunderstandings has consequences for wellbeing and social connectedness,” said study authors Harri Allan, researcher, and Mary-Jane Budd, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of East London.
“Since a good deal of interpersonal communication these days takes place through text messaging apps, where emojis have become ubiquitous, it was interesting and relevant to explore whether our newer ways of communicating present any advantage or otherwise for people who experience these difficulties. As far as we know, this was the first quantitative alexithymia study to look at word and emoji use in real-world text messaging and also developed a unique methodology for considering variety rather than frequency as a measure of expressivity.”
The study included a final sample of 72 participants (21 to 79 years of age) who were recruited from the University of East London and the researchers’ social network in the United Kingdom. Participants had to be 18 or older, English-speaking, and daily smartphone users. These participants were divided into high alexithymia and low alexithymia groups based on their scores on the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire.
Participants were asked to describe their mood in text messages sent via their smartphones. They were sent messages at different times during the day for two consecutive weeks. In each message, participants were asked to provide a one-word or emoji description of their current mood and rate the valence of their response on a 7-point scale. Participants were given flexibility in choosing their words or emojis to ensure natural responses.
The researchers found that there was greater variety of both words and emojis in positive responses compared to negative or neutral ones. In other words, when participants were feeling positive emotions, they used a wider range of words to express those feelings. Similarly, when participants were feeling positive emotions, they used a greater variety of emojis to express how they felt in their text messages. This suggests that positive expressions may naturally admit greater variety in text messages.
But the study did not find support for the hypotheses that individuals in the high alexithymia group would exhibit reduced verbal and non-verbal expressivity, especially in negative contexts. When analysing total scores, there was no significant difference in the variety of words and emojis used between the high alexithymia and low alexithymia group when describing their feelings.
“Our research suggests that for people who have difficulty identifying and describing their internal states and emotions, these difficulties may not be so marked in text messaging. We also noted that overall, people use greater variety of both words and emojis when they are texting positive messages regardless of their level of alexithymia,” Allan and Budd told PsyPost.
When exploring differences in subscales of alexithymia and their impact on expressivity, the researchers found evidence of reduced negative emotional expressivity for high alexithymia individuals compared to low alexithymia individuals on subscales related to difficulty describing feelings and externally oriented thinking. However, these effects were specific to emojis.
Notably, the results showed a divergence from expectations: high alexithymia individuals exhibited an increased variety of emojis when describing negative feelings but a decreased variety when describing positive feelings. This suggests a dissociation in how high alexithymia individuals use emojis to express different emotional states.
“At a more specific level, there is some evidence to support the conclusion that when people have difficulty describing their emotions in particular, emojis may be a helpful form of enhancing their communication via text message,” Allan and Budd explained.
The study highlights the importance of examining alexithymia at the facet level.
“Our study employed the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire, a newer scale that allowed us to examine the impact of alexithymia by its three facets – difficulty identifying emotions, difficulty describing them, and difficulty looking at internal states,” the authors told PsyPost. “The measure also allowed us to explore whether feeling positive or negative impacted people’s expressivity.”
“While previous research had given us reason to expect that facet-level analysis might reveal finer-grained findings, it was startling to note that without that capacity to make valence-specific distinctions between the facets, our more nuanced and interesting findings would have been concealed if considering only a general total alexithymia score. So we’d certainly advocate for facet-level analysis in future alexithymia research.”
The variations in emoji use observed in individuals with high alexithymia compared to low alexithymia could be linked to differences in their ability to recognize their bodily sensations, the researchers said. Research has shown that both increased and decreased interoceptive abilities are associated with alexithymia in different contexts. These interoceptive processes may influence non-verbal responses in alexithymia directly or via interaction with verbal processes.
“Given previous evidence that emojis are used as a digital substitute for non-verbal expressions in face-to-face interactions, and other research connecting alexithymia and differences in non-verbal expressivity with differences in people’s perception of their internal bodily sensations – known as interoception – our research opens up the possibility that the differences in emoji use we observed for particular facets of alexithymia, may be related to differences in interoception,” Allan and Budd explained.
The study’s results challenge previous assumptions about reduced expressivity in individuals with alexithymia and suggest that the relationship between alexithymia and emotional expression is more nuanced, particularly in the context of digital communication. But further research is needed to validate and expand upon these findings and to explore the underlying mechanisms of these observed differences in emoji use.
“While the relationship proposed between alexithymia, emoji use and interoception can be rationalized by the literature, our interpretation is novel and at best marginally significant,” Allan and Budd said. “More research is needed to support our findings and would benefit from including measures of interoception. It would also be interesting to analyze the impact of emotional intensity on expressivity which could be relevant in this context as well as to compare the use of face to non-face emojis, especially given the association with reduced facial expressivity in alexithymia.”
“Our research highlights how the digital contexts through which we increasingly interact may not be neutral mediums but might themselves contribute effects that enhance or diminish our expressive potentials,” the researchers added.
The study, “A case for emojis, more or less: An analysis of word and emoji expressivity in text messaging for high and low alexithymia levels“, was authored by Harri Allan and Mary-Jane Budd