Summary: (Derks et al. 2008) -The Role of Emotion in Computer-mediated Communication

This is my summary of: Derks, D., Fischer, A.H. & Bos, A.E.R., 2008. The role of emotion in computer-mediated communication: A review. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(3), pp.766–785. The article provides a review of literature that deals with the expression of emotion in computer-mediated communication (CMC). The authors’ primary aim is to evaluate the widespread claim that CMC is less well suited for the communication of emotion than face-to-face (F2F) interaction, using the available scientific evidence. They reach the conclusion that this claim is not supported, and CMC and F2F possess similar capabilities for emotional interaction, with CMC in certain cases even enhancing the frequency and explicitness of emotional expressions.

The authors’ starting point is an ongoing discussion over the differences between CMC and F2F communication. They argue that there are two sides in the discussion, either viewing CMC as radically inferior to CMC in terms of emotional expressiveness, or not that different after all. The authors set out to evaluate that claim, focusing solely on text-based CMC, due to it being the most widely adopted method and its harsh difference from F2F interaction. The emotional communication that they investigate involves processes of „recognition, expression and sharing of emotions or moods between two or more individuals“ (p767), and involves both explicit (communication through verbal emotion labels or symbols, appraisals, etc.) and implicit (emotional style of the message) aspects. Research about emotional communication between romantic couples using CMC was excluded from their review.

Additionally to the features of the messages sent in each communication mode, they compare both in terms of differences in context between them, which they describe as being defined by a social and a physical factor. The more a medium extends along the social dimension, the more aware it makes its users of the presence of their communication partners and their identity, and thus facilitates the recognition of social cues, i.e. group membership. The authors then argue that both modes of communication are heavily shaped by social connection between communication partners, but that in CMC social presence is less tangible — i.e. it affords anonymity. In contrast to this, the physical dimension relates to the extend to which a medium establishes a sense of physical co-presence between the communication partners involved. Derks et al. use this dimension especially to capture the lack of nonverbal cues offered by text-based CMC, i.e. no bodily contact or visibility of the other. Because of a lack of available research on the impact of these aspects on emotion communication (in relation to CMC?), they do not cover it in detail it in their review. However, they clearly state its importance for emotional communication: „Reduced visibility, which is characteristic for most CMC, […] may have especially consequences for the decoding or recognition of other‘s emotions, because we cannot make use of these cues in order to interpret incoming messages. In addition, this feature also may have consequences for the expression of one‘s own emotions towards others, because the consequences of one‘s emotion expressions on others are less visible as well“ (p768).

Social sharing and self-disclosure in CMC

A primary focus of the authors is the way that people use CMC to actively and voluntarily share emotions with others, and the way this compares to F2F communication. They argue that there is only a small amount of research directly comparing CMC and F2F conversations, but that there is ample evidence that emotions are talked about freely in CMC and are able to fulfill similar social functions. They field an indirect line of argumentation to support their claim consisting of three points: (1) success of online messaging, chat systems and dating services all over the world provides a clear evidence for its capability to mediate emotional content and functions (e.g they allow flirting and the establishment of intimacy); (2) Online therapy, that encourages some people to confine their feelings more openly than a F2F setting, and even increases success rates; (3) Studies on self-disclosure in CMC, where gender roles impact specific emotional styles and etiquette in ways that are similar to the differences between them in emotional F2F communication.

Social factors regulating the expression emotions in CMC

Derks et al. argue for a distinction between sharing emotion (talking about emotional topics with others) and expressing emotions to others. They refer to research describing the impacts of social presence on facial expressions, e.g. that the presence (real or imaginary) of others alone already leads to an increase in smiling. Additionally, identity of others and power relations have impact on the display of expressions. Different combinations of social contexts and emotions, so they summarize the research, are governed by specific display rules, enhancing or inhibiting certain expressions. In CMC social visibility is reduced when compared to F2F, even allowing interactions involving complete anonymity, which the authors describe as reducing the inhibition of negative emotion (i.e. flaming behavior).

CMC and nonverbal cues

Another point investigated by Derks et al. is text-based CMC’s inability to transfer non-verbal cues. They set out to identify the consequences of this on three of these cues’ vital functions for the communication of emotions in F2F: (1) their reduction of ambiguity of emotional expressions, (2) their modification of the intensity of an emotional expression, and (3) their elicitation of mimicry of others’ emotional expressions.

Most notably, in F2F interaction a message gets assigned different meanings, depending on what kind of non-verbal expressions and context accompany it.  Derks et al. describe this situation as problematic for CMC, especially in the early days of email-communication where it led to various misunderstandings of the emotional intent behind a message, e.g. a sarcastic or humorous remark might be interpreted differently than intended. The authors argue in relation to this issue that people using CMC have developed their own mechanism to deal with ambiguous situations and regulate emotional intensity: the practice of using emoticons.

Furthermore, nonverbal expressions are mentioned to be vital for the regulation of the emotional intensity that is conveyed in a message, and the authors mention the possibility that CMC’s lack of this aspect might lead to an overestimation or underestimation of expressed emotions, and thus to inappropriate reactions and conflict. An example could be that a joke that is clearly visible as upsetting or angering ones communication partner in a F2F interaction would not be noticeable in his/her explicit reaction (perhaps he even stays silent), which may prompt one to respond inappropriately, thereby escalating the situation. Conversely, they conclude that “emotional experiences in reaction to online others may have the same quality, but have a lower intensity and probably duration than in F2F situations”(p781).

The final function of nonverbal cues is the elicitation of mimicry and imitation behavior. This effect is described as being more intense in response to people that one likes — intimates mimic each other more than strangers do –, but is even displayed when people are confronted with photography of emotional expressions. The effect of mimicry seems to be a perpetual cycle for strengthening social bonds: “more mimicry leads to more liking , but more liking also leads to more mimicry” (p779). Considering these findings, Derks et al. raise the question of whether it is more difficult to establish intimate relationships using CMC, given the absence of the mimicry mechanism. Reviewing further evidence on the establishment of intimate relationships they argue that there is no evidence that supports the view that the absence of nonverbal cues hinders the exchange of emotional information,even if general questions about the embodiment of emotions remain unanswered. In their view, the role of nonverbal cues is likely to be replaced by an increase in usage of explicit emotion labels and descriptions and emoticons. They highlight that there is no research directly comparing F2F and CMC modes of communication on this basis. Additionally, the authors point out that the precise impact of the non-existence of nonverbal cues on the communication of emotions and its bearing on relationship-development are not well researched.

In a similar manner, they point out that most communication over CMC is decisively intentional, rational and controllable, which forms a stark contrast to the traditional picture of emotions as basically anti-rational phenomena. Because of the time delay and the asynchronous nature of some of CMC communication, they describe CMC as more controlled: One has time to think and act, without having to fear “unconsciously leaking non-verbal emotional expressions” (p781). However, they also point out that emotional control in CMC has not been investigated.


Please note that this summary represents my own interpretation of the original article, and as such might leave out important aspects or even contain errors. It does not attempt to replace reading the original article in any way and is primarily intended as a memory aid for myself.