Mirror, Mirror on the Screen, What Does All this ASCII Mean?: A Pilot Study of Spontaneous Facial Mirroring of Emotions

  • Brittney O'Neill
Keywords: emoticons, computer-mediated communication (CMC), facial mimicry, paralinguistic cues, gender, interaction, facial expression, facial action coding system (FACS), internet


Though an ever-increasing mode of communication, computer-mediated communication (CMC) faces challenges in its lack of paralinguistic cues, such as vocal tone and facial expression. Researchers suggest that emoticons fill the gap left by facial expression (Rezabek & Cochenour, 1998; Thompson & Foulger, 1996). The fMRI research of Yuasa, Saito, and Mukawa (2011b), in contrast, finds that viewing ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) emoticons (e.g., :), :(  ) does not activate the same parts of the brain as does viewing facial expressions. In the current study, an online survey was conducted to investigate the effects of emoticons on perception of ambiguous sentences and users’ beliefs about the effects of and reasons for emoticon use. In the second stage of the study, eleven undergraduate students participated in an experiment to reveal facial mimicry responses to both faces and emoticons. Overall, the students produced more smiling than frowning gestures. Emoticons were found to elicit facial mimicry to a somewhat lesser degree than photographs of faces, while male and female participants differed in response to both ASCII emoticons and distractor images (photos of non-human, non-facial subjects used to prevent participants from immediately grasping the specific goal of the study). This pilot study suggests that emoticons, though not analogous to faces, affect viewers in ways similar to facial expression whilst also triggering other unique effects.
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