What your emojis say about you

Posted at 7:17 AM, Jan 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-18 07:17:03-05

Whether you like it or not, cartoon faces, stomping flamenco dancers and applauding hands have now entered your social life, albeit digitally.

While they once may have been novel or cute, the sea of emojis now available to you across digital platforms are the perfect punctuation to express your joy, laughter and sadness when messaging others.

“Hey, how are you?” is no longer a plain sentence. It’s now regularly accompanied by a round circle smiling back at you.

In a new paper published Tuesday in the journal Trends on Cognitive Sciences, a team of psychologists argue that as our daily interactions become more digital, scientists will benefit from studying them further. In particular, due to the growing use of emojis helping us get the same satisfaction from digital interactions as if we were communicating in person.

The researchers from Edge Hill University in the UK believe emojis enable non-verbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, in today’s digital world.

Defining meaning

Just look at the tears of joy emoji, the well-known yellow face with squinted eyes and tear drops flying out. On seeing that teary yet happy face, you know that the person sending it to you thinks something is funny enough to cry with laughter.

Words alone may not have gotten their sentiment across.

“Different regions of the brain light up when you’re looking at emojis compared to not looking at emojis,” said Linda Kaye, senior lecturer in psychology, who led the analysis.

“We see something neurologically different, implying they function as non-verbal,” she said.

Source of emojis: Emojione

In the real world, the use of hand gestures and expressions play a vital role in the way we communicate with someone. It helps them understand our meaning while subtly providing a window into our persona, such as how empathetic or approachable we are, according to Kaye.

When you can’t see the person you’re communicating with, an emoji is an effective option. “It’s how you emotionally express,” said Kaye. And your choice of emoji can dramatically alter the meaning of the sentence it’s included in and how you should respond.

Imagine receiving this message from your best friend: “I tripped and hit my head on the cupboard” followed by that iconic laughing face. Their words let you know that person is not hurt, and is fact now mocking their clumsiness.

The same sentence followed by closed eyes slanting down with a downturned lip, the classic sad face, will illicit quite a different reaction — or at least it should.

No emoji at all would convey the literal meaning of the statement and likely illicit the same response as the sad face, due to the nature of someone telling you that they are injured. But the fact that the person is upset about this may not be as clear — the use of an emoji clarifies how the person is feeling.

“It changes the meaning of how someone should interpret the text,” said Vyvyan Evans, professor of linguistics at Bangor University in the UK, and author of upcoming book “The Emoji Code.” He was not involved in the new analysis. “Emoji facilitates more effective communication.”

Whether you like emojis or not, it’s likely you will have used them at some point. Kaye believes that as emojis are more widely used, they can reveal someone’s true opinion on something, for example during scientific surveys, to ensure their messages “aren’t ambiguous,” she said. “We could be using them more in psychological experimentation,” added Kaye.

Many museums, companies and even transport networks are already resorting to a mild version of this, like the use of a scale of smiley faces ranging from happy to sad, instead of numbers, when asking for feedback on their services. The response to them can have more psychological insight than regular words or numbers, Kaye believes.

The psychology of emojis

In a 2016 study, Kaye identified some personality traits linked to people’s use of emojis.

One key finding was that the people using them tend to be more agreeable in nature. This has a similar truth among people who more often use facial expressions or varying intonation when face to face.

“It makes sense as these are probably people in the real world who are more smiley to people,” said Kaye.

Another factor her team identified was that people who commonly used emoji were more socially receptive and empathetic, making them more approachable. “It says something about how we’re understanding each other and how we’re likely to interact with people,” said Kaye.

When probing deeper into the specifics during the study, people who were more aware of how they come across to others were less likely to use sad emojis.

“We found that self-presentation was negatively related to using sad emojis,” said Kaye. “The more people are self-aware, the less they use these emojis.”

But when taking this all into account, age, of course, has a role to play. Younger members of the population have had digital communication permeate their daily lives from an early age. The findings also apply more greatly to social networking sites and communication apps, but not email.

“[Emails] are considered more professional,” said Kaye.

The previous research found that almost 80% of people included in the study used emojis when texting, while 76% used them on Facebook and just 15% used them in email contexts.

But as more apps and sites invade our lives, this psychological insight could evolve, as including emojis in messages may no longer be a choice.

Evans believes that embracing emojis is the only option if people want to interact productively in the future. “Someone who is not using them is not an effective communicator and therefore not effective an inducing an emotional response,” he said.

Kaye highlighted the example of dating sites, such as, where survey results show greater success at finding a match among people who use emojis more regularly in their online messaging. The same survey also found emoji users were more likely to want to get married — and there are limits to the acceptable level of emoji use.

“This is something that now exists and people need to use them,” he said. “That’s just the way it is now.”