Chatham News

Chatham Professor Explores the Psychology of Emojis

PITTSBURGH: Dr. Monica Riordan, an experimental psychologist and an assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh has published new research entitled,  Emojis as Tools for Emotion Work: Communicating Affect in Text Messages.

In her recent study, Dr. Riordan analyzes emoticon use in texts and finds that while prior research of emoji faces suggest their primary purpose is to convey affect, few have researched the communicative purpose of emojis of objects. In her current work, two experiments assess whether emojis of objects also convey affect.

Different populations of participants were shown text messages with or without different emojis of objects, asked to rate the message’s affective content, and indicate their confidence in their ratings. Overall results suggest that emojis of objects communicate positive affect, specifically joy.

These findings are framed in the sociological theory of emotion work, suggesting that the time and effort involved in using emojis may help maintain and enhance social relationships.

“We use text messaging to communicate with many different types of people: our spouse, co-workers, friends. With each person, we play a different social role: as wife or husband, co-worker, or friend. Each social role requires that you act differently, and we perform these acts to remain in the other person’s good graces. Emojis help us perform those actions via text. ‘Perform’ is the key word here: usually we aren’t “laughing with tears” each time we use the emoji. But responding to a friend’s texted joke with that emoji helps us perform our role as a good friend. In the same way, texting a heart emoji helps us perform as husbands or wives, and texting a trophy to our sales team helps us perform as co-workers,” said Dr. Riordan.

She adds that emojis are an interesting form of play in the performance of social roles. They help us build and deepen relationships around shared meanings.

“For example, the meaning of a unicorn emoji is often unique to a particular set of interlocutors, and almost never refers to an actual unicorn. The meaning of the unicorn emoji can only truly be known if you are one of the interlocutors. Without that insider knowledge, all we can know for sure is that it symbolizes positive emotion between them.”

Monica A. Riordan, Ph.D., works in experimental psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University. Her research focuses on interpersonal computer-mediated communication. She is a cognitive scientist whose interests include discourse processing and verbal and nonverbal communication. Dr. Riordan largely focus on the interpersonal process in constructing and interpreting meaning between a speaker and listener. Her work is focused on computer-mediated communication, such as emails, instant messages, and text messages.