Study finds women are better at interpreting emoticons than men

Published 11 March 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Emoticons are not always easy to interpret.

Women interpret emoticons better than men, research shows. Researchers believe this is because these small digital pictograms used to express an emotion can be ambiguous and are perceived differently by different people.

The study, conducted at the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology, involved 523 adults, 49% of whom were male and 51% female. The subjects were asked to look at 24 different emoticons that the researchers had labeled with an emotion.

The emoji in the study, which came from Apple, Windows, Android, and WeChat, symbolized one of six emotional states: happy, disgusted, scared, sad, surprised, and finally angry. The researchers found that women were better at interpreting happy, scared, sad and angry emoji than men. However, there were no gender differences in the interpretation of surprised and disgusted emoji.

– What I found most interesting and surprising is that there are so many individual differences in how people interpret these emojis, says Dr. Ruth Filik. We should keep these differences in mind when using emojis in our messages.

Younger people scored better

Later, the research team decided to follow up by recruiting 270 people from the UK and 253 from China, aged between 18 and 84, and having them do a similar test of emoticons. Again, the researchers saw a gender difference, but also an age difference. Younger people were better at matching emoji to the right emotion more often than older people. Even the British interpreted the emoji as the researchers labeled them better than the Chinese.

– For example, if Chinese participants use a smiling emoji to indicate they are being sarcastic, then they may be less likely to label it as ‘happy’ than UK participants.

The researchers suggest that this may be because small digital pictograms used to express an emotion or idea can be ambiguous and perceived differently by different people. This ambiguity is worthy of further research, especially “when communicating across gender, age, or culture”.