How Well Do You Understand Emoji?

Apr 10, 2019

A Westfield State University student and her professor attempted to find out how fluent people are in emoji — those smiles and icons used in texts and on social media.

Their findings have been published in an international journal, Psychology Of Popular Media Culture — a first for the school.

For Alecka Camp, a recent graduate of Westfield State, it turns out little, if any, has been written on the subject. That became the basis of a research project for Camp and her psychology professor, Alex Daniel. They're now working on a follow-up study looking at the use of emoji by advertisers and authority figures. 

Daniel told NEPR they developed an online survey asking students how understandable each message was, based on three conditions.

Alex Daniel, Westfield State University professor: The neutral condition is we just gave them a message with no emoji.

The congruent condition is we gave them an emoji that matched the context of that message.

And we had an incongruent condition, which is that message, but an emoji that doesn't really fit that context.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: And Alecka, how did they respond?

Alecka Camp, Westfield State University graduate: We have three hypotheses. The first one was that congruent emojis — the congruent messages — would be easier to understand. And then incongruent, or inappropriate, emojis would be more confusing, harder to understand.

The result was that both of those hypotheses were true.

But what I thought was interesting in response to our third hypothesis — that the people who used Twitter more, or social media, would be more likely to share and understand congruent emojis — that hypothesis was not proven.

We actually found that regardless of how often somebody used social media, the congruent emoji still was more widely understood.

Did the result surprise you in any way?

Daniel: In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. Because on one hand, yeah, of course emojis work, right? That's why we use them.

But on the other hand, I thought, kind of like what Alecka was saying, that it's really interesting that Twitter use, or social media use, didn't predict how easily people perceive these things. So if somebody is always on their phone, that didn't actually affect how they perceive these messages.

You might think that maybe they would, because they have so much experience seeing these emojis, but it seems like that doesn't actually make a difference.

Sending messages using emoji.
Credit Helar Lukats / Creative Commons

Because we haven't really been taught how to use emojis?

Daniel: I think that's a big part of it. I think that because they're intuitive — because we don't have to learn what they are, because they're so standard — that they seem natural. And partly because they mirror our own facial reactions. Maybe if you're flooded with emojis all day, that doesn't really make a difference how you understand them, compared to somebody who doesn't really use Twitter or social media.

Does this say anything about our fluency in writing? Someone might argue that this shorthand would leave us, particularly among college-age students, unable to express our feelings, our thoughts, our emotions in writing.

Daniel: Sure, that's a really good thought. I guess my take on it is: part of this literature is looking at how people understand communication in general. One of the things that we find is that in processing fluency, if you have really good handwriting, people are more likely to believe that what you're writing is true, versus if you have poor handwriting.

If you extrapolate that to our research, what we're showing is that using emoji is kind of like using good handwriting, where it's just another tool that you can use to maybe help make your message more understandable or more believable.

Camp: As far as writing out how we feel, I'm sure there's some argument of emojis limiting that. But I think that emoji kind of helps us be able to express what we can't put into words.

Particularly if you're on Twitter, and you're limited in terms of the number of characters.

Daniel: Sure. And also, when you're on Twitter, they can't see your facial reaction, right? So they can't tell if you're joking, they can't tell if you're being sarcastic, or if you're actually impressed with what you're saying.