What is the psychology behind emoticons

How does the brain process emoticons?

Last update: May 30, 2017

The way we communicate is changing at a dizzying speed. It feels a bit like our car is being towed by the tech train that was useful at first, then necessary, and now downright tyrannical at times. We are now writing to people who are far away from us or beautifying the protective cover into which our profiles in the social networks have been transformed. To overcome the limits of written communication, we use emoticons.

What do emoticons do? In general, they simulate a face and accompany a message so that it can be properly understood. "Hello how are you ? ♥ ”is not the same as“ Hello, how are you? ” Emoticons are actually our salvation because written communication is usually serious and that's how we interpret it. When we receive a message that is not accompanied by an emoticon, it is not uncommon for us to think the other person is upset. And when you write without using emoticons, you sometimes get the feeling that the message contains all the information, but the message is still not complete.

The origin and meaning of emoticons

Emoticons indicate emotions. The first emoticon dates back to 1982 and was used by writer and computer engineer Scott Fahlman. He used it in a very similar way to what we do today, namely on forums, to make the difference between messages in an ironic or cheerful tone and serious communication.

Since then, the use of emoticons has grown so much that the Oxford English Dictionary In 2015, an emoticon, or more precisely the one that cries with laughter, was chosen as the word of the year. Perhaps this decision wasn't meant to be taken seriously, but it shows how this form of expression has become a natural part of our communication.

We may no longer use them on forums, but like Scott Fahlman, we continue to use smileys to make our messages appear friendlier or to respond to funny messages. The classic “hahaha” will soon no longer exist, because emoticons represent our actual facial expressions better than a series of letters.

How do we process emoticons?

Whenever a new form of communication arises, it also means a new challenge for science: to understand what effects this new method has on us. A 2006 study by Yuasa, Saito, and Mukawa looking at participants' brain activity showed that emoticons are not perceived as faces. That is, the right fusiform gyrus, which is normally activated during face recognition, showed no activity in connection with recognizing emoticons. However, that is not the most important result. Important is, that we associate every emoticon - at least the most popular ones - with different emotions. Therefore, according to researchers, they serve their purpose very well.

In a later study from 2014, Churches, Nicholls, Thiessen, Kohler and Keage came to a different conclusion, stating that faces and emoticons activate exactly the same areas in the brain. All of these areas are located in the occipito-temporal cortex.

It seems like our ability to Associative learning creates a connection between emoticons and the emotions they are meant to represent. Thanks to this connection and the technology, these small pictures, which even exist as stuffed animals, seem to have found their way into our dealings with one another.

Emoticons and personality

Research on emoticons is still in its infancy. For example, one could ask the question whether the emoticons we use say something about our personality beyond the direct communicative context.

According to a small study carried out by publicist Daniel Brill, the constant use of the face crying with laughter indicates an extremely joking personality, the toothy smile has a defensive personality, and excessive use of an animal such as the octopus is indicative of someone having a problem getting along with other people.

These observations are only intended to satisfy our curiosity, as the study had too many limitations for the results to be considered reliable. But it also paves the way to a still largely unknown area that needs to be explored. If anything emerges from these studies, it is that emoticons are here to stay.