Can we Perceive Emotion Through Texts Accurately?

By Sherlock Shi, first year Psychology student

I think we all have encountered this situation once or twice: looking at a text from a friend but getting confused about what they really mean. They may have texted one thing, but it can be difficult to know if they actually mean it or if the message is intended sarcastically. Understanding conversations can be a challenge without emotions, and this is especially prominent given the proliferation of online messaging today. Even with the help of “emojis” or “stickers”, we sometimes get lost in texts. So, it all comes down to this question: can we perceive emotions accurately through texts?

After stepping into the grand 21st Century, the technology industry has hit a new high. With booming inventions on smartphones, smartwatches and laptops, this era of the machine and touch screen may have brought us convenience, but it has also unconsciously affected how we approach life. One report shows that American adults spend over 4 hours a day on their phones, exposing just how obsessed we are with technology nowadays. This means that instead of face-to-face interaction, we increasingly rely on texting. Furthermore, one researcher found that only 7% of communication takes place through words themselves, 93% comes from vocal tone and body language, such as gestures and facial expression.

We often appreciate emotions through words, vocal tones and visual information

Since texting only shows words without body-language, does this mean that we perceive communication differently or incorrectly through text? To answer this question, it’s firstly important to consider how we actually recognise emotion. As humans, we often appreciate emotions through words, vocal tones and visual information such as body language. A successful communication usually involves all three elements, and lack of any one of them can cause the misinterpretation of emotion.

Emotions are often constructed when our cognition connects physiological arousal with the environment, giving us personal interpretations, which form an emotion. For example, if I was involved in a car crash, I may feel “fear”. That’s because my heart rate increased (physiological arousal) and my cognition connected this arousal with the situation (car crash). Eventually, my cognition believes that “fear” as an emotion is more suitable in this situation and therefore, I felt “afraid” in a car crash.

However, this may not be the case in emotion recognition. Raine’s research on the psychopath suggests that the frontal lobe (the front of the human brain) may be responsible for feeling empathy for others. The word empathy emphasises the ability to feel what others feel. Some argue that psychopaths can recognise emotions, but cannot feel them, while others claim that both understanding and feeling emotions are hard for them to do, so the frontal lobe must be responsible for identifying emotions (a psychopath often show lack of activity on the frontal lobe).

It is not yet clear how we actually perceive emotions

Overall, theories of how we identity emotions are well developed, but the topic of how we recognise emotions is not widely studied. Therefore, it is not yet clear how we actually perceive emotions both biologically and cognitively. An excellent dissertation project for a Psychology student, I guess?

But we digress. So, do we perceive communication differently through only text? The answer here is yes and no. We definitely see information differently if it is only given in a message, without any context or emotional attachment. But once we get used to this kind of conversation or master the ability to perceive genuine emotion from simple texts, then the emotion we perceive is more likely to be precise.

Let’s say that I rely 90% on texting for interactions (like many human beings in the 21st century). How do I make sure that I get the correct emotion from the text? Believe it or not, there are actually techniques you can develop to master this ability.

First, you can consider the gender difference. A study shows that males and females tend to recognise emotions differently when shown the same message. So, when texting with opposite gender, take the time to consider other possible emotions. Secondly, finding those emotionally strong words, such as “love” or “hate”, can help. If someone texts “I love this job”, then the emotion it carries is probably positive. As the options of emotion are narrowed down by those words, it becomes easier to interpret the genuine emotions. Last but not least, try not to assume another’s emotions based on your own experiences. Your friend may text you that they finished 3 papers this morning. This doesn’t mean that they’re happy; they may have 6 papers left and still feel anxious. You cannot assume that they’re happy only because you think finishing 3 papers on Sunday morning is a positive thing.

University is not just about essays, reading or communicating with others online

Ultimately, texting is not the best tool for communicating. Remember how the research showed that only 7% of human communication relies on the direct message? I encourage you all to go beyond your screens, your comfort zones. It may be hard to believe, but we are not slaves to technologies. Go to common rooms, local coffee shops or bars, say “hi” to those who welcome you, have face-to-face interactions with them; spend more time with your loved ones and go beyond the restrictions of technology. Why not explore Durham with others, have a new adventure or take a train to somewhere without plans? University is not just about essays, reading or communicating with others online, it’s about gaining concrete experiences you never had before. So, let’s embrace the real world!

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