Emoji use shows less authority, power – TAU study

"When you want to signal power think twice before sending an emoji or a picture," says Tel Aviv University researcher Dr. Elinor Amit.

DEMONSTRATORS CARRY an inflatable angry emoji during a protest outside the Facebook annual shareholders meeting in California in May 2019.  (photo credit: STEPHEN LAM / REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS CARRY an inflatable angry emoji during a protest outside the Facebook annual shareholders meeting in California in May 2019.
(photo credit: STEPHEN LAM / REUTERS)

A new Tel Aviv University study found that emoji usage in professional settings was associated with having a lower level of authority.

Managers, change your shirt!

The study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in February, tested a series of experiments in which various everyday scenarios were presented to hundreds of American respondents.

In one experiment, for instance, half of the participants were shown a T-shirt with the Boston Red Sox professional baseball team’s verbal “RED SOX” logo, while the other half saw the pictorial logo.

Those who saw the T-shirt with the pictorial logo rated the wearer as less powerful than those who saw the verbal logo.

In another experiment, participants were asked to imagine attending a retreat of a company called Lotus. Half were told that a female employee had chosen a T-shirt with the verbal “LOTUS” logo, while the other half were told that she had chosen the visual logo (a minimalistic picture of the lotus flower). Once again, the respondents attributed more power to the employee who had chosen the verbal logo.

Researchers conducted further experiments, including some on post-pandemic workplace staples such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In the video call chat experiment, participants were asked to choose one of two co-participants to represent them in a competitive game that suited people with high social power. One participant had purportedly chosen to represent themselves with a pictorial profile, while the other had chosen a verbal profile. 62% of participants selected the verbal participant.

THE MILLENNIAL Generation is expert at expressing emotion through emojis and gifs.  (credit: TOBIASCHAMES/FLICKR)THE MILLENNIAL Generation is expert at expressing emotion through emojis and gifs. (credit: TOBIASCHAMES/FLICKR)

A desire for "social proximity"

“Research shows that visual messages are often interpreted as a signal for the desire for social proximity. A separate body of research shows that less powerful people desire social proximity more than powerful people do,” said the study’s co-author Dr. Elinor Amit from Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management.

“Consequently, signaling that you’d like social proximity by using pictures is essentially signaling you’re less powerful," she said.

"It must be noted that such signaling is usually irrelevant in close relationships, as in communications between family members. However, in many areas of our lives, especially at work or in business, power relations prevail, and we should be aware of the impression our messages make on their recipients,” Amit said.

"Our findings raise a red flag: when you want to signal power think twice before sending an emoji or a picture."