How Emojis Could Save the World

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett


This is the first post in Brain Yapping, my new blog for the Cosmic Shambles Network. And because it’s 2018 and this is a thing that will be posted on the internet, I’m guessing that mere minutes after it goes live I’ll already have an inbox full of deeply unpleasant messages telling me what an arse I am, or painstakingly detailed descriptions of the grim things the enraged messenger is going to do to me, or my wife/children/mother/pets. 

It’s a depressingly inevitable fact of modern life; you put anything out there online, and someone somewhere will get extremely angry about it, and be very willing to let you know, particularly if they suspect that you may have slightly different political beliefs. Or if you have the unbelievable front to be a woman and demonstrate independent thought. Shame on you!

Just some of the many ways you can be awful to people online

Many people, particularly the older generation, blame the internet for this. Sure, the ability to instantly message anyone in the world, from your own home, essentially for free, that would make it easier to send unpleasant missives to those you disagree with. But even if the internet allows people to be cruel to strangers with minimal effort, it doesn’t automatically follow that it turns them into cruel people (although this isn’t impossible either). If anything, society seems to be getting more tolerant since the arrival of the internet (within reason). Arguably, the unpleasant elements of the population have always been there, they just now have more avenues in which to be unpleasant. It’s hard to imagine abusive messages being particularly common in the era of expensive, clunky telegrams.


Doesn’t really scan.

However, this doesn’t mean the state of online discourse isn’t a problem that needs addressing. We humans don’t do things in isolation; we’re an incredibly social species, that’s one of the main reasons we’re as smart as we are, according to the most salient theories. As such, we take many of our cues regarding how the world works and how to behave from other people. So, if we see unpleasant behaviour often, we’re more likely to end up thinking that’s how the world works. And if you receive abuse, then it’s human nature to respond in kind. Totally reasonable, but it keeps the cycle going.

It propagates in other ways too. Group polarisation means that people who belong to groups which share common goals/views/beliefs invariably end up becoming more extreme in their views, to the point where sending abuse online is considered the norm, not an aberration, even if it’s something as innocuous as, oh I don’t know, Star Wars fandom.

Unfortunately, this online abuse can have real-world ramifications. Consider how polarised the political debate has become in recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic, with disastrous results all round. Many political types have weighed in in recent years, trying to get the big tech companies to sort it out. They may have their own motivations for this, but it’s not unreasonable to conclude that ever-angry, constantly-combative interactions between millions of people could result in further lasting harm to society if it carries on unchecked.

What’s to be done about it? Well, leaving aside all the technical or legal avenues, some studies reveal a quirk in the human brain that could prove useful here, and the answer could come down to emojis. Yes, emojis.

I said humans are a social species, with brains that are highly sensitive to the behaviour and views of others (consider the existence of social emotions, like guilt and embarrassment; they don’t make sense outside the context of other people’s feelings and opinions). Basically, we don’t like being judged unfavourably by other people. It causes genuine distress in the brain. Ergo, we modify our behaviour when there’s the risk looking bad in front others. This is nothing ground breaking; does anyone behave in daily life like they do when meeting the in-laws for the first time?

When a few lines and dots on a yellow sphere speak a thousand words

What is surprising is just how easy it seems to be to trigger this ‘best behaviour’ response. A 2006 study by Bateson, Nettle and Roberts suggests that people will be more sociable and charitable if there are just pictures of eyes visible. The human brain is incredibly sensitive to faces, thanks to dedicated regions like the fusiform gyrus, so presumably some deeper part of the visual system clocks the sight of eyes and says “We’re being watched! Be nice to people!”

Indeed, a later study by the University of Michigan suggests that friendly cooperative behaviour is increased if the subject can see vague lines and shapes in the vague shape of a face! Assuming these results are valid and apply to the general population (never a guarantee), it suggests people are very keen to see faces in the most basic stimuli and will behave in more socially acceptable ways when they do.

So, if antisocial behaviour is rife in text-based communications online, one possible solution to this would be to insert a little face in every message, to hopefully take the edge off the more aggressive impulses in either the sender or recipient. And that’s where emojis can come in. Maybe not the flags or abstract shapes or the aubergine one that is surprisingly popular for some reason, but the face ones. What if every message had to include an emoji, a smiley one or whatnot, instead of a full stop? Would we see a marked drop in abusive messages? It’s hard to say. Might be worth a punt though?

And yes, some might point out that small pictures of faces are everywhere on Twitter, and that’s still a toxic stew of fascism and dick pics. Good point, but what if it’s the very ambiguity of the minimalist faces that causes the effect? Visual ambiguity can potentially seriously engage the human brain, while a detailed profile pic can be easily categorised as ‘someone I know I don’t like’, so the compulsion to behave doesn’t happen.

I confess, I’ve no idea how to implement this ‘every message should have an emoji’ rule, I’m more of an ideas man if I’m honest. But maybe it could help? Can’t make things worse, surely.

But then, if it was implemented, we’d probably end up with a bombardment of enraged messages from language purists and the old guard paranoid about reducing children’s mental ages. And then we’re back to square one.

Sorry 😊

Dean Burnett discusses this sort of thing and much more in his latest book The Happy Brain, available in the UK, US and beyond.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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