Emoticons in JPSP ;)It's a good day for the field of computer-mediated communication when emoticons are taken seriously in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Most people recognize the inherent limitations of email; it's a relatively impoverished medium, lacking the subtle cues that, face-to-face, convey meaning. Is she teasing or annoyed?
Hence the emoticon, beloved by adolescents and CEOs alike. (The latter apparently need to be reminded not to include them in professional writing.) People pepper their messages with emoticons to clarify text they think is ambiguous.
The problem is, people don't realize when they're actually being ambiguous. A series of studies at NYU, Chicago, and UIUC show an egocentric bias in email: People routinely overestimate how well they can communicate . Writers cannot divorce themselves from "hearing" their own voice; they assume the audience hears their intended sarcasm or humor, when in fact, it doesn't. Like three-year-olds who haven't developed Theory of Mind, email authors naively assume others interpret the world exactly as they do.
The experimenters manipulated sender-recipient familiarity (friendship didn't aid in interpretation), medium (voice conveys meaning better), and tone (sarcasm, seriousness, humor, sadness, and anger are equally hard to convey), and original authorship (authors wrote and spoke their own humorous messages and those written by comedians. The experimenters get bonus points for that last point—not only did they sneak emoticons into JPSP, but they used Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts" as stimuli, so they got Uncle Caveman into an academic publication. Bravo. ;-P
1. Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., and Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 925-936. (PDF)