This story is over 5 years old.


We Talked to a Psychologist Who Takes Emojis Very, Very Seriously

She thinks they’re somewhere between language and hand gestures.

Are emojis a necessary evil in a digital world where expressing basic thoughts and feelings with language has apparently become impossibly complicated, or are they the crutches of a dumbed-down Internet culture that's somehow convinced itself that a tiny illustration of a smiling pile of poop is the best possible way to communicate complex emotions?

These are questions that Linda Kaye, a cyberpsychologist at Edge Hill University, attempts to answer in her new forum paper, co-written by Stephanie Malone and Helen Wall and published earlier this week in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.


Actually, no, she doesn't answer it exactly. She just points out that emojis are kind of a big deal, and there should probably be more research on them, because wow are people using emojis a lot—like 92 percent of people, according to Kaye, and you know what? She's perfectly fine with that. The GPS of personal expression just might "disambiguate the communicative intent behind messages," she writes, "serve important verbal and nonverbal functions in communication, and even provide insight into the user's personality." Still not convinced, I called Kaye to see if she could persuade me that the influence of emojis on the written word is anything other than [poop emoji].

Is it possible that emojis are making us dumber?
It's an interesting question. I think the effect is similar to what happens in texting. People were quite concerned that text-speak would end up affecting our written language skills.

Because texting is like a grammar Thunderdome?
Right, right. [Laughs.] Nobody is really paying attention to simple rules of grammar. But when you actually look at the evidence there, it shows that people are being very creative with language when they're communicating in texts. I think something similar is happening with emojis. My perception—and we don't have the evidence behind this yet, so it's still very much my opinion—is that people often use them quite creatively.

How is it creative? It's not like they're coming up with their own emojis. They're picking from a lineup. Isn't that like saying somebody is binge-watching Netflix creatively?
[Laughs.] Well, that may be true. Some people might be doing this in a lazy way, and it might be making them dumber as a result. But I don't think that's necessarily the case all the time. I think you have to look at the context. In some cases, it might be people just adding an element to what they're already saying, or accentuating emotion. For example, I tend to use the crying-with-laughter emoji quite a bit.


Ah, the old classic.
Maybe just because naturally I find a lot of things funny. But when I use it, it's because I find something really, really, really funny, and I'll usually use it multiple times, because that for me is a way of saying, "Okay, I think this is funny, but I'm actually laughing." So why not write something like, "I'm actually laughing?"
Well, that's a good question.

That's a way of saying the same thing, but with words.
I think we need to look at them as a sort of punctuation. A lot of people might use emojis in the same way they use exclamation marks and things like that. When you use an exclamation mark, you're adding greater intensity.

I have a problem with that too. Exclamation point abuse is a huge problem. Why would anybody use more than one exclamation point?
Well . . .  I get it, you're shouting. Adding more exclamation points doesn't make whatever you're yelling more passionate or meaningful.
That may be true. But emojis do work in the same way as exclamation points, for better or worse. You're accentuating the urgency. You're essentially saying, "Look, this is really very exciting. Not just a bit exciting, a lot exciting." The other thing is, there's a fundamental difference between how we communicate online and how we communicate in person. When you're talking to somebody in person, you use hand gestures. You're not just talking with your mouth, you're using your hands and your arms and your facial expressions.


So emojis are like hand gestures?
Very much so. And we don't have any scripted rules for gesturing. We do in language, and we even have scripts in sign language. But with gestures, they occur more spontaneously. Emojis seem to fall in that category. But are emojis really that spontaneous? I agree, you don't think about gesturing. It just happens. But with emojis, you have to make the conscious decision, "I wonder if it'd be funny if I included ten red wine glasses and a panda for no apparent reason."
I think emojis are somewhere in the middle, between language and gesture. I don't know, this is where a lot of research hasn't been done yet. It's still very much evolving, our understanding of how emojis are being used and what the intentions are. You write that emojis can "reduce discourse ambiguity." But it feels like they do the opposite sometimes.
How so? Like that crying-with-laughter emoji. I'm never sure what someone means by that. Are they mocking me? Are they crying from laughter at me or with me? It feels very sarcastic.
Possibly. The most common emojis—things like smiling and frowning—there's not much ambiguity there. But when we get to more complex emojis…  Poop.
[Laughs.] Poop, sure. Or anything that could be construed as sarcastic, or has different meanings for different people, they are a bit more problematic in terms of ambiguity. It becomes a little more messy as the platforms become more developed, and we have an increased number of emojis to choose from.


There's something like 1,850 emojis on the market right now.
And every platforms represents them slightly differently.  That's right. I've seen some smiley-face emojis that look like the little yellow dude is getting a prostate exam.
That becomes a problem when you're doing this kind of research. We need a baseline for how people are experiencing emojis. But we don't have anything close to that. In fact, it doesn't seem like a lot of people even understand what they're actually saying when they send an emoji.

It's the peach emoji conundrum.
The what?

The peach emoji that kinda looks like an ass? It's like a Rorschach test. Some people think it looks like whoopie cakes. Some people think it's just expressing an enthusiasm for stone fruits.
Yes, it's complicated. [Laughs.] Emojis can have a lot of different meanings that can get lost in translation.

This line from your paper jumped out at me: "Virtual communications may be more 'considered' and consciously controlled than in traditional face-to-face expressions." That can't be true, can it?
Emojis don't feel considered?

Maybe I'm underestimating what's involved in emojis, but to me, they are the opposite of considered. They're what somebody chooses when they don't want to think too hard about what they mean or what they're trying to communicate.
Think of it this way. With nonverbal communication in the real world—things like social expressions—we often don't have much conscious control over them. If you're interacting with somebody and you smile, in most cases that wasn't intentional. You just naturally smiled because of what they or you were saying. But if you're putting a smiley face at the end of a text message or Facebook comment, you don't do that without careful consideration. You might pause and think, "Is this appropriate? Is this going to be misconstrued? Are they going to think I'm a bit of a douchebag?" You think about that smile in ways you wouldn't out in the real world. It becomes a conscious, premeditated process rather than a reflexive, unconscious response. We could feasibly get to a point someday where that isn't the case, where emojis become more automatic. How would that happen?
Well, think about people who touch-type, for example. [Typing without looking at the keys.] There's an element of automatic process there. At this point and time, computers don't include emojis on them. But social networks have those options. We can add emojis on the keyboards of our phones. It's possible now to have instant access to those ways of communicating. So how long before it becomes automatic, where you type them without thinking it?

So the same way you know where the "A" or the "M" on your laptop keyboard is without looking, maybe we'll get to a point where the heart-eyes emoji is just part of the universal keyboard lexicon, and our fingers will just reach for that key by muscle memory? 
That could happen. It could become more automatic. I'm just thinking out loud, really. This is all speculative.