Scientists are actually, genuinely, in real life looking to study emoji use as a way to provide insights into human behaviour.
This is fascinating.
More than 90 per cent of online populations use emojis and emoticons in texts and emails, and early studies have found that emojis can help with cross-cultural communication and provide useful insights into user personalities. This kind of information could be of interest to those working in a range of fields, from linguistics to marketing.
Psychologists Linda Kaye, Stephanie Malone, and Helen Wall are now taking a deeper look at emojis and emoticons as tools for evaluating how we relate to each other in the digital age.
During face-to-face interactions, verbal and nonverbal cues (like facial movements, voice pitch, and shaking fists for example) 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 Linda Kaye, a cyberpsychologist (that’s a real thing, people) 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.”
Contrary to what people might think, communicating via smiley face may actually be more closely related to personality than age. It’s not just the younger generations using them – a 2014 survey of 1,000 people in the United States showed only 54 per cent of emoticon users were 18 to 34 – but anyone who has attempted to communicate with an elderly aunt online would know that.
“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.