Science & Tech

Choose wisely, emojis can make of break a text. Image: Dasser Kamran/The Fulcrum
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A new study organized by the University of Ottawa found that emojis impact the way messages are interpreted by recipients, regardless of a sender’s intentions. 

According to the research, recipients of text messages assume negative words and emojis carry more emotional weight than positive words and emojis.

Isabelle Boutet, a U of O psychology professor and an expert on face perception and cyberpsychology, led the research team to study the importance of emojis in digital communications. 

“Emojis have a strong impact on whether your messages are understood and they have a strong impact on how you’re perceived by the person to whom you’re sending the message,” said Boutet. 

For this study, 38 volunteers were asked to interpret text messages that were paired with emojis. 

Researchers paired positive, negative, and neutral messages with smiling, angry, and neutral face emojis. This helped emphasize the positive, negative, and neutral tones of the messages. 

These emojis were selected based on a study whose findings suggest that these emojis are universally understood to have similar meanings. 

Then, the research team asked participants to judge the emotional state and personality of a hypothetical texter according to each message-emoji combination. 

Negativity prevails in text messages

“Even if you [pair] a positive message with a negative emoji, the receiver will interpret the sender as being in a negative mood,” said Boutet. “Any reference to negativity [impacts] how people interpret your emotional state when you write a text message.

As seen in Fig. 1., the written part of texts were classified into three tone categories: ‘negative’, ‘positive’, and ‘neutral’. Then, each of these text types was paired with different emojis—smiling, angry, neutral face, or no emoji. Participants were then asked to judge the personality of the sender based on the combined message and emoji. 

Even when it comes to sarcastic texts, which normally comprise a negative message and a positive emoji, recipients are likely to overlook the positive emoji and focus on the negative message. Sarcastic texts are represented by the yellow bar in the negative sentence category of Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. For this study, participants rated text messages on a six-point Likert scale, where 6 is ‘extremely warm’ and 0 is ‘not warm at all’. Image: ScienceDirect

“People have a lot of problems interpreting messages that are meant to convey irony or sarcasm,” said Boutet.  

To remedy this communication problem, Boutet offers advice to regular texters. 

“Unless you want to be perceived negatively, you should certainly avoid using negative emojis,” she said.

 “Also, it isn’t only a matter of avoiding the use of negative emojis. If you want to be viewed positively, use positive emojis in your text messages.” 

Bronwyn Reeves, a recent U of O graduate, said she often uses emojis in her text messages. 

“I use emojis all the time because I want to make sure that the sentiments of my text messages are properly conveyed.” 

“I also use emojis to let people know that I’m joking. Or sometimes I just use emojis to let people know that I’m not mad,” added Reeves. 

Despite Boutet’s findings, it’s not widely understood that the type of emojis we use affects how our messages are understood. 

“People use emojis for fun without giving it much thought when, in fact, [emojis] have a strong impact on interpersonal interactions,” Boutet said. 

For example, Michael Chen, a first-year data sciences and mathematics student does not give much thought to the meaning of the emojis he sends in his texts. 

“I send emojis almost all the time and I usually send them without thinking about how the other person will take it,” said Chen. 

“I usually don’t think they really change how people understand me because they can always read the words I wrote. The words in my message are the most important part and I use emojis just for fun.”

Life-like emojis might solve digital communication problems

Boutet would also like to reimagine existing emojis so that they accurately represent facial expressions. She thinks this is especially important if emojis are meant to reflect human reactions. 

“Not everybody interprets emojis in the same way. And sometimes when you get an emoji, you’re not sure what message is being conveyed by the sender,” said Boutet. 

“We need to find out if there are emojis that are interpreted more consistently than others.” 

For example, Boutet’s research team developed a smiling emoji that includes creases at the corners of the eyes to better showcase a happy expression. Details like these are what Boutet believes will make emojis easier to understand. 

“These new emojis are meant to signal similar information that is typically signaled in our faces when we express emotion,” said Boutet.