The colour of your social media emoticon could be crucial when it comes to your message being interpreted correctly. And if you use the wrong colour, you’re more likely to ‘mislead’ the person you’re communicating with. That’s according to new research by experts from Liverpool Hope University, and Joshibi University of Art and Design from Tokyo, Japan.
Emoticons are traditionally rendered in yellow – after American commercial designer Harvey Ball created his ‘smiley’ as a distinctive yellow button back in 1969.
But a new study has revealed how an emoticon’s colour might affect the emotional, or nonverbal, aspect of the message. Researchers found cheerful ‘smileys’ were perceived as ‘happier’ when rendered in yellow or orange, while ‘Angry’ emoticons conveyed stronger emotion when presented in red. ‘Sad’ emoticons were ‘sadder’ when rendered in blue or cyan (turquoise), and ‘neutral’ emoticons came across best when rendered in grey. But, on the flip side, ‘angry’ emoticons rendered in cool colours – and ‘sad’ and ‘neutral’ emoticons in warm colours – revealed higher chances of being misinterpreted.
The results have been published in the journal i-PERCEPTION. Lead author Professor Galina Paramei, of Liverpool Hope University’s Department of Psychology, describes an ‘emotional Stroop’ effect at play, whereby the ’emotion expression of an emoticon assessed by the receiver is impacted by the emotional sign of the colour it is presented in’.
The authors explain: ‘These findings indicate that incongruent, or contradictory, emotion expression – colour combinations attenuate the message conveyed by the emoticons.
‘The resulting ambiguity of a message apparently triggered “an ‘emotional Stroop” effect that potentially could lead to a receiver’s misinterpretation of the context, the tone of the message, or the sender’s attitude – be it a negative bias, flaming the interaction, or a positive bias with spurious peace-making – but ultimately impacting the efficiency of communication.
‘The present findings can be useful in developing communication tools in social networking sites to improve the “motion catch-ball” in digital communications by using emoticons with congruent colour variations instead of conventional yellow emoticons.’
Professor Paramei and her research colleagues, PhD student Songyang Liao at Kanagawa University and Professor Katsuaki Sakata at Joshibi University, in Japan, suggest the phenomenon could be related to how humans are hardwired to perceive the colour of expressed emotions in real human faces – aka ‘biologically-engrained face coloration’.
Professor Paramei, a respected colour vision scientist, explains: ‘Specifically, approach-oriented emotions – anger, happiness, surprise – evoked by challenge elicit vasodilation, facilitate blood flow to skin areas, with the face becoming redder and yellower. Conversely, avoidance-oriented emotions, such as disgust, fear, sadness and triggered by threat, elicit vasoconstriction, reduce blood flow to the face and, hence, incur bluer or greener facial coloration.’
The new research saw Professor Paramei and her colleagues putting around 50 participants based in Japan through a series of four laboratory-based experiments and one online experiment. The volunteers ranged in age from 18–23 years old and were both male and female. Each test centred on a set of 40 different emoticons representing four basic emotions: angry, sad, surprised, and happy plus a neutral’ xpression, which were each rendered in eight different colours, running from red through to orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple and light grey.
The bulk of experiments in the series saw participants assessing the affective meaning of different coloured emoticons before deciding whether the image was ‘not angry or angry’, ‘not sad or sad’, ‘not neutral or neutral’, ‘not surprised or surprised’, and ‘not happy or happy’. The results were more or less consistent throughout both the lab and the online experiments.
Professor Paramei says: ‘As is apparent, “angry” emoticon was perceived as “angrier” in warm colours, particularly in red and orange. Red “angry” emoticon had higher angry affective meaning than in all other colours, and orange “angry” emoticon was “angrier” than in light grey.
‘”Happy” emoticon, as expected, was judged “happiest” in yellow: the corresponding affective meaning was higher than when it was rendered in purple and light grey or red, cyan, and blue. “Happy” emoticon was also judged rather ‘happy’ in orange, with happy affective meaning higher than when it was rendered in cyan, blue, purple, or light grey. In green, happy affective meaning was greater than in light grey.
‘Conversely, “sad” emoticon was perceived as “sadder” in cool colours, cyan, and blue; in both colours, sad affective meaning was higher than when it was rendered in red, orange, yellow, or green.
‘It is worth noting that purple “sad” emoticon evinced a sad affective meaning estimate that was only marginally lower than when rendered in either cyan or blue.
‘”Neutral” emoticon was judged as most “neutral” in light grey, with the corresponding affective meaning significantly higher than in red, orange, or yellow.
‘Finally, “surprised” emoticon appeared to slightly better-convey the intended emotion when rendered in red, higher than in blue, in accord with findings for realistic face images.’
For the Japanese respondents, Professor Paramei and her colleagues found that, on average, the colour of the emoticon accounted for a third of the meaning of the emotion attributed to it.