Was that semi-colon some kind of flirty wink or just bad punctuation? — Azadeh Aalai
Do you know the difference between an emoticon and an emoji? Or better question, did you even know those were words?
If you’re like my sister, you hate emojis but are okay with emoticons. If you’re like me, you have to restrain yourself from using both too much. If you’re like my Dad …well, I’m just impressed you were able to access the internet for today’s post.
Regardless of your opinion on them, today, let’s talk a little about the psychology surrounding them.
If you click this link, you’ll see that an emoticon is the text-based face you can make by combining something like a colon and a parenthesis, i.e., 🙂 An emoji, on the other hand, is the more technologically advanced graphic that depicts a smiling face, a smiling monkey, even everyone’s favorite smiling pile of poo.
The original emoticon was invented back in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon out of necessity. You see, someone decided to have some fun and posted that there was a mercury spill on an internal message board—which sent the university into a panic. Once it was revealed it was a prank, though, a professor suggested that jokes should be denoted with a smiley face. And hence, the smiley face was born.
Over 15 years later, as technology advanced, emojis—those colorful depictions of people, animals, sexual vegetables, and more—were introduced to the world, and now they have become a staple of cell phones everywhere.
Well, except for my father’s phone. His still works on Morse Code.
But now that you’re hip and in the know, how do emojis and emotions impact one’s psychology?
ONE IMPRESSIVE STUDY
Researchers in China working with an e-commerce firm that sells clothes drying racks online (a very popular product in Asia), had the company’s service employees either use or not use emoticons in their conversations with customers. Then, after the customer’s interaction with the employee, the researchers were able to interview the customer and track how much they spent.
The researchers found something very interesting. For consumers who prefer communal interactions with employees (i.e., they want a friendly and caring interaction), using emoticons actually increased how much money customers spent at the store. However, for consumers who prefer exchange interactions (i.e., they want a straightforward and professional interaction), using emoticons actually decreased how much money consumers spent.
But, if the employee went above and beyond the call of duty, it didn’t matter what kind of interaction the customer preferred: using (vs. not using) emoticons further increased actual sales and word of mouth for the company!
THE SPECIFIC EMOJI CAN MATTER
As you may have guessed, there is not really a lot of research out there on the influence and impact of emojis and emoticons. In fact, the study I described above was the only one I could find in the mainstream journals about this topic. The other, lesser known work examining them has largely focused on how these symbols can be used to disambiguate or even reinterpret text.
For example, if you received the following message, “I loved the customer service :-)” you would probably interpret the message as literal. However, if you received this text, “I loved the customer service :-(” you would probably interpret the message as sarcastic.
More broadly, research suggests that emoticons/emojis can be interpreted in very different ways depending on the context surrounding them. For example, if a boss has to deliver a specific, negative performance review to an employee, using positive emoticons can help “soften the blow.” However, if an employee has to communicate that they messed up their boss, using positive emoticons can actually make matters worse.
So, when it comes to using emoticons or emojis in your own life? The best the research can say right now is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: What are some circumstances when you would be more less likely to use an emoji or emoticon? Are there certain people you feel more comfortable using them with? If so, the important question to ask yourself is why? In a previous post, we talked about the psychology of exclamation points and their impact on the interpretation of messages. Similarly, what kind of attributions or assumptions do you make about someone if they use lots of emojis or emoticons?
Aldunate, N., & González-Ibáñez, R. (2017). An integrated review of emoticons in computer-mediated communication. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 2061.
Li, X. S., Chan, K. W., Kim, S., & Aggarwal, P. (2018). Service with Emoticons: How Customers Interpret Employee Use of Emoticons in Online Service Encounters. Journal of Consumer Research.
Wang, W., Zhao, Y., Qiu, L., & Zhu, Y. (2014). Effects of emoticons on the acceptance of negative feedback in computer-mediated communication. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 15(8), 454.