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Digital and technology

Why psychology needs to start taking emoji seriously

Dr Linda Kaye is hosting one of our Psychology in the Pub events in York next week, and here provides a primer on "The Psychology of Emoji" and what to expect!

06 March 2018

By Cyberpsychology Section

Using emoji is becoming increasingly commonplace in online forms of communication through text messages, online social networking and even in emails.

But although emoji are often considered to be a bit of fun which add a light-hearted tone to online discourse (Kaye, Wall & Malone, 2016), evidence is suggesting it may be time to start taking emoji seriously.


Because it turns out they may be serving a range of important psychological and social functions within human communication.

Emotion and Sentiment

There is growing evidence about the way emoji are affording emotion and sentiment detection within textual discourse.

Research within the area of Natural Language Processing (NLP) often use computational models to study social media content containing emoji. These models are becoming increasingly accurate at learning representations of emotion in such content, and it seems that emoji are facilitating this capacity (Felbo, Mislove, Søgaard, Rahwan & Lehmann, 2017; Sari, Ratnasari, Mutrofin & Arifin, 2014).

Similarly, emotional hashtags (#) have been found to successfully map onto emotional categories within Twitter content (Mohammad, 2012), and research moving beyond computation models into human inference shows similar findings. Namely that even non-facial emoji play a role in communicating emotion and can disambiguate text messages (Riordan, 2017).

In respect of smiley emoji, these also appear to be particularly impactful on recipients’ emotions through the process of emotional contagion (Lohmann, Pyka, & Zanger, 2017). Further, within more applied contexts, emoji have also been highlighted to be a useful method for measuring emotional associations to consumables such as food and drinks (Jaeger, Vidal, Kam & Ares, 2016; Vidal, Ares & Jaeger, 2016).

But while it has become clear that emoji serve an emotional function when used in correspondence with written language, there are a number of questions yet to be addressed in the literature.

One concerns the way in which emoji are processed on an implicit level akin to stimuli such as emotional words or faces. That is, are emoji actually emotional, particularly when processed outside the context of written language?

We may expect that if emoji are indeed emotional then we would observe similar processing efficacy to that of emotional words (Ponari, Rodríguez-Cuadrado, Vinson, Fox, Costa, & Vigliocco, 2015), and these issues are the focus of our ongoing research.

To aid further research in this area, a recent paper developed affective norms for a large database of emoji, whereby these were evaluated on seven key dimensions (Rodrigues, Prada, Gaspar, Garrido, & Lopes, 2018). As such, further research may use these as a standardised set of stimuli for research.

Personality and Self-expression

As well as their emotional correlates, emoji appear to hold a function for expressing user identity and personality. For example, emoji have been found to relate to a number of personality traits including emotional stability, extraversion and agreeableness (Marengo, Giannotta & Settanni, 2017), suggesting they may hold relatively good concurrent validity with personality questionnaires.

Further, when viewing someone’s use of smiley emoji on Facebook, unacquainted others make judgements about the user’s level of agreeableness, consciousness and openness to experience (Wall, Kaye & Malone, 2016).

Although not all these are found to be accurate judgements, it suggests emoji may play a role in social information processing, particularly for trait perceptions. Interestingly, this research also found that of these aforementioned traits, only openness to experience could be accurately detected at first impression, highlighting how smiley emoji may be affording the judgement accuracy process.

This is particularly noteworthy given that openness is not an easily detectable trait in face-to-face first impressions. In this way, it seems there may be something unique about the online context which facilitates how we make different types of trait perceptions of others. However, these findings require further research to establish how these aspects of social information processing may vary across online contexts given some initial evidence to suggest social context impacts on how emoji are perceived (Glikson, Cheshin & van Kleef, in press).

Final thoughts

Although the primary focus of research on emoji has related to their emotional correlates and personality perceptions, more is needed on understanding their role for different psychological processes and other aspects of human communication.

In particular, there is ongoing discussion about their role as research tools (Jaegar, Xia, Lee, Hunter, Beresford & Ares, in press; Kaye, Malone & Wall, 2017), in which we may develop psychometrically-valid instruments to explore a wider range of psychological enquiries.


  • Felbo, B., Mislove, A., Søgaard, A., Rahwan, I., & Lehmann, S. (2017). Using millions of emoji occurrences to learn any-domain representations for detecting sentiment, emotion and sarcasm. In Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (pp. 1615-1625). Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Glikson, E., Cheshin, A., & van Kleef, G. A. (in press). The dark side of a smiley: Effects of smiling emoticons on virtual first impressions. Social Psychological and Personality Science.
  • Jaeger, S. R., Vidal, L., Kam, K., & Ares, G. (2016). Can emoji be used as a direct method to measure emotional associations to food names? Preliminary investigations with consumers in USA and China. Food Quality and Preference, 56, 38-48
  • Jaegar, S. R., Xia, Y., Lee, P., Hunter, D. C., Beresford, M. K., & Ares, G. (in press). Emoji questionnaires can be used with a range of population segments: Findings relating to age, gender and frequency of emoji/emoticon use. Food Quality and Preference.
  • Kaye, L. K., Malone, S. A., & Wall, H. J. (2017). Emojis: Insights, Affordances and Possibilities for Psychological Science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2), 66-68
  • Lohmann, K., Pyka, S. S., & Zanger, C. (2017). The effects of smileys on receivers’ emotions. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 34 (6), 489-495
  • Marengo, D., Giannotta, F., & Settanni, M. (2017). Assessing personality using emoji: An exploratory study. Personality and Individual Differences, 112, 74-78
  • Mohammad, S. (2012). #emotional tweets. In The First Joint Conference on Lexical and Computational Semantics (*SEM) (pp. 246–255). Association for Computational Linguistics.
  • Ponari, M., Rodríguez-Cuadrado, S., Vinson, D., Fox, N., Costa, A., & Vigliocco, G. (2015). Processing advantage for emotional words in bilingual speakers. Emotion, 15(5), 644-652.
  • Riordan, M. A. (2017). The communicative role of non-face emoji: Affect and disambiguation. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 75-86
  • Rodrigues, D., Prada, M., Gaspar, R., Garrido, M., & Lopes, D. (2018). Emojicon: Norms for Emoji and Emoticons in seven evaluative dimensions. Behavior Research Methods, 50 (1), 392-405
  • Sari, Y. A., Ratnasari, E. K., Mutrofin, S., & Arifin, A. Z. (2014). User emotion identification in Twitter using specific features: Hashtag, emoji, emoticon and adjective term. Journal of Computer Science and Information, 7 (1), 18-23
  • Vidal, L., Ares, G., & Jaeger, S. R. (2016). Use of emoticon and emoji in tweets for food-related emotional expression. Food Quality and Preference, 49, 119-128
  • Wall, H. J, Kaye, L. K., & Malone, S. A. (2016). An exploration of psychological factors on emoticon usage and implications for judgement accuracy. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 70-78.

About the author

Dr Linda Kaye, aka 'The Cyber-Doctor', is a Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society who specialises in the field of Cyberpsychology, with particular emphasis on the social context and impact of our interactions with digital and online environments.

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