November 4, 2008

Study Shows Emotions Can Be Conveyed In Instant Messages

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Today a huge portion of communication comes in the form of instant messages and texting. Unfortunately, both have been called ineffective forms of communication due to the lack of conveyed emotions. But a Cornell study has refuted that claim, believing that instant messages particularly can be a meaningful form of communication.
Jeff Hancock, associate professor of communication and information science, was always skeptical of the assumptions surrounding instant messaging.
“People assumed that writing in text was emotion-less and cold. I started thinking why do we read novels and Shakespeare? Its very clear words can express emotions so I wanted to check this assumption. That led to our paper, looking at detection, seeing if someone can detect if someone is happy or sad through text, and then we did a follow up study,” Hancock said.
Working with Kevin Ciaccio ’06, Kailyn Gee ’07, and Jennifer Mae-Hwah Lin ’07, Hancock gathered 44 participants and paired them up.
One of the people in the twosome listened to sad music, watched a scene from the emotional movie Sophie’s Choice and worked on difficult anagrams, which incited frustration in participants.
The other person listened to happier music, watched a scene from Before Sunrise and did easier anagrams, which instilled more confidence in the participant.
Each pair of people was told to talk via instant messaging and had two tasks to complete. First they had to find something in common with each other to would establish a shared common ground for more effective communication. Then the participants were told to talk about something worrying them.
“We found that the happier people talked more. They tended to use more exclamation points and dot-dot-dots. They were more expressive. The sad people tended to use more negative emotion words, which leaped out as a leakage cue. They didn’t mean to say sad anxiety words but they just leaked out because they were feeling it,” Hancock explained.
Harry Segal, a senior lecturer in psychology, agreed that the perceptiveness of the human mind could pick up on these very small cues.
“If you then limit these subtleties to text then all you have are the words on the page. Nevertheless the sequence of the words, the syntax and the vocabulary choices can be very evocative and people can fall in love with this. I have great faith in the power of written language to be evocative,” Segal said.
After the conversations, Hancock asked the initially happier people how they were feeling. The happier people actually ended up feeling sadder, Hancock explained, after they talked to the sadder people. The emotions were contagious, and this was happening through text only.
Jackie Faneuil ’10 is a self-proclaimed huge fan of both instant messaging and texting.
“I instant message and text my friends all day long. I can ask and tell if someone is having a bad day just by the way they punctuate, their word choices or even how long it takes them to respond,” Faneuil said.
Faneuil also agreed that friends can be very in tune with each others’ emotions, and that when talking to specific friends through these text mechanisms, she can sense and be affected by their feelings.
Hancock further found that there were three aspects to instant messaging that made it a form of honest communication, which would lead to the susceptibility of these emotions being contagious.
“The reason instant messaging is honest is because people are frequently very open when they are interacting in text and less self-aware of how they are coming across. People are also more honest because a record is logged,” Hancock said.
This, combined with the extra few seconds people have when constructing appropriate responses, as opposed to spur of the moment lies, makes instant messaging a more honest form of communication.
Hancock believes these assumptions could probably be linked to texting as well, although he has yet to conduct a study specifically on cell phone texting.
“I think people are more open and willing to say things when it’s not face-to-face. Building a relationship is about being open and saying what you feel, so if you can do that through I.M.’ing or texting, then I think you can build relationships,” Faneuil said.
Unfortunately Segal recognized that there are areas for miscommunication when it is not face-to-face.
“It can go off in a direction that neither person intends, because there is no tone of voice that intends this as a joke,” Segal said.