According to a study by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, emoji are becoming as powerful as words. Or, at least, equally effective when it comes to portraying emotions such as irony and sarcasm. This is great news for lazy texters and time-pressed individuals (aren’t we all?). Now they can merely insert an emoticon to replace a lengthy sentence. But will regular use of emoticons lead to an overall dumbing down of our culture and speech?
Emoji Study on Native English Speakers
Researchers in the linguistic department at the University of Illinois found that our brains interpret sarcasm from an emoji in the same way as they do verbally. On what did they base their findings? They measured the brain activity of native English speakers when they came across different emoji at the end of sentences. The participating students were asked to read sentences that ended with a negative, positive and ironic emoji.
Adding a smiley face is a very effective way of neutralizing a sentence and reinforcing the intended meaning. Written words alone are very strongly open to interpretation. That means it can be easy to offend or convey an unintended emotion through your written tone. When followed up with a winking or smiling face, the words are more likely to be received in the way the sender intended.
One of the examples of the study was the sentence “You are such a jerk.” Depending on the context and rapport between the sender and recipient, this can conjure different emotions. But when followed by a winking emoji, the potentially insulting sentence is neutralized. It is obvious that the intent was a joke and not an insult.
During the study, participants were asked how they interpreted various different sentences. There were some students who seemed to be little affected by the power of the emoji and who read the sentences literally. However, those who said that the emoji had changed the way they read the sentence displayed different brain activity. This activity indicated sarcasm and irony.
Measuring the results
How can they tell all this? According to Science News, sarcasm in the brain looks the same, whether it’s triggered by words or by an emoji. This means that “a winking-face emoji is worth a slew of ironic words.” Good news for those of you texting on the run or burned out from too much time thwacking away at the keyboard!
Literary scholars, linguists, and those who simply find yellow smiley faces irritating will be less enthusiastic about the news. Using emoji may be a time-saving way of replying to a text, but who wants to see our news and literature reduced to children’s pictures?