Scientists Want to Know What ;) Really Means

Are emojis the new body language? Right now, all scientists can say is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — which is why psychologists are calling for more research into why people use these symbols to communicate, and what it says about them when they do.

More than 90 percent of people who use the internet rely on emojis, according to the paper, published on (Jan. 17) in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“We mostly use emojis like gestures, as a way of enhancing emotional expressions,” Linda Kaye, a co-author of the new paper and a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England, said in a statement. But, she said, “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.”

But when it comes to understanding how people express emotions, the vast majority of research has been limited to emotional expression during face-to-face interactions, the researchers wrote.

When humans communicate with one another, they use two types of behavior: verbal behavior, which includes speech and text, and nonverbal behavior, which includes facial expressions, the researchers wrote.

Emojis appear to act as a stand-in for nonverbal communication in typed messages, which lack the subtle nonverbal behaviors that people get through face-to-face interactions, the paper said. (Consider, for example, a time when you have puzzled over the tone of an email.)

Indeed, the first reported 🙂 popped up in discussion forums in the 1980s, where the symbol was used to indicate that a message was a joke, the researchers wrote.

One of the questions the researchers would like to answer is whether people use emojis similarly to how they would express emotion in person.

For example, online communications “may be more ‘considered’ and consciously controlled” than face-to-face expressions of emotion, which tend to be more spontaneous, the researchers said. It’s possible that there are “unique underpinnings” that make communicating one’s emotions with emojis different from communicating emotions with facial expression or body language in person, the researchers said.

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