The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right
How do humans separate sarcasm from sincerity? Research
on the subject is leading to insights about how the mind
By Richard Chin
November 14, 2011
In an episode of "The Simpsons," mad scientist Professor
Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm
"Sarcasm detector? That's a really useful invention,"
says another character, the Comic Book Guy, causing the
machine to explode.
Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to
detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years,
researchers from linguists to psychologists to
neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive
snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the
mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm
enhances creative problem solving, for instance.
Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get
to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may
be an early warning sign of brain disease.
Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going
to function in a modern society dripping with irony.
"Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,"
says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the
University of California at San Francisco. "People who
don't understand sarcasm are immediately noticed.
They're not getting it. They're not socially adept."
Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according
to one study of a database of telephone conversations,
23 percent of the time that the phrase "yeah, right" was
used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have
almost lost their literal meanings because they are so
frequently said with a sneer. "Big deal," for example.
When's the last time someone said that to you and meant
it sincerely? "My heart bleeds for you" almost always
equals "Tell it to someone who cares," and "Aren't you
special" means you aren't.
"It's practically the primary language" in modern
society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk
is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere
statements do. Scientists who have monitored the
electrical activity of the brains of test subjects
exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains
have to work harder to understand sarcasm.
That extra work may make our brains sharper, according
to another study. College students in Israel listened to
complaints to a cellphone company's customer service
line. The students were better able to solve problems
creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed
to just plain angry. Sarcasm "appears to stimulate
complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative
effects of anger," according to the study authors.
The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm
includes developing a "theory of mind" to see beyond the
literal meaning of the words and understand that the
speaker may be thinking of something entirely different.
A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your
brother says "nice job" when you spill the milk, he
means just the opposite, the jerk.
Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You're
saying something you don't literally mean, and the
communication works as intended only if your listener
gets that you're insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced
quality: it's both funny and mean. This dual nature has
led to contradictory theories on why we use it.
Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort
of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with
indirectness and humor. "How do you keep this room so
neat?" a parent might say to a child, instead of "This
room is a sty."
But others researchers have found that the mocking,
smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more
hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root
for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.
According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is
just part of our quest to be cool. "You're distancing
yourself, you're making yourself superior," Haiman says.
"If you're sincere all the time, you seem naive."
Sarcasm is also a handy tool. Most of us go through life
expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a
University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying
sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would
plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman
says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously
express our expectation as well as our disappointment.
When a downpour spoils a picnic and you quip, "We picked
a fine day for this," you're saying both that you had
hoped it would be sunny and you're upset about the rain.
We're more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than
our enemies, Pexman says. "There does seem to be truth
to the old adage that you tend to tease the ones you
love," she says.
But among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the
conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as
opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey
Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell
University. This may be because it's safer to risk some
biting humor with someone you're never going to meet. He
also noted that conversations typed on a computer take
more time than a face to face discussion. People may use
that extra time to construct more complicated ironic
Kids pick up the ability to detect sarcasm at a young
age. Pexman and her colleagues in Calgary showed
children short puppet shows in which one of the puppets
made either a literal or a sarcastic statement. The
children were asked to put a toy duck in a box if they
thought the puppet was being nice. If they thought the
puppet was being mean, they were supposed to put a toy
shark in a box. Children as young as 5 were able to
detect sarcastic statements quickly.
Pexman said she has encountered children as young as 4
who say, "smooth move, mom" at a parent's mistake. And
she says parents who report being sarcastic themselves
have kids who are better at understanding sarcasm.
There appear to be regional variations in sarcasm. A
study that compared college students from upstate New
York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found
that the Northerners were more likely to suggest
sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a
Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was
funny: 56 percent of Northerners found sarcasm humorous
while only 35 percent of Southerners did. The New
Yorkers and male students from either location were more
likely to describe themselves as sarcastic.
There isn't just one way to be sarcastic or a single
sarcastic tone of voice. In his book, Haiman lists more
than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can
indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses,
duration and punctuation. For example: "Excuse me" is
sincere. "Excuuuuuse me" is sarcastic, meaning, "I'm not
According to Haiman, a sarcastic version of "thank you"
comes out as a nasal "thank yewww" because speaking the
words in a derisive snort wrinkles up your nose into an
expression of disgust. That creates a primitive signal
of insincerity, Haiman says. The message: These words
taste bad in my mouth and I don't mean them.
In an experiment by Patricia Rockwell, a sarcasm expert
at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, observers
watched the facial expressions of people making
sarcastic statements. Expressions around the mouth, as
opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited
as a clue to a sarcastic statement.
The eyes may also be a giveaway. Researchers from
California Polytechnic University found that test
subjects who were asked to make sarcastic statements
were less likely to look the listener in the eye. The
researchers suggest that lack of eye contact is a signal
to the listener: "This statement is a lie."
Another experiment that analyzed sarcasm in American TV
sitcoms asserted that there's a "blank face" version of
Despite all these clues, detecting sarcasm can be
difficult. There are a lot of things that can cause our
sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding.
Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain
lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability
to perceive sarcasm.
Researchers at the University of California at San
Francisco, for example, recently found that people with
frontotemporal dementia have difficulty detecting
sarcasm. Neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin has
suggested that a loss of the ability to pick up on
sarcasm could be used as an early warning sign to help
diagnose the disease. "If someone who has the
sensitivity loses it, that's a bad sign," Rankin says.
"If you suddenly think Stephen Colbert is truly right
wing, that's when I would worry."
Many parts of the brain are involved in processing
sarcasm, according to recent brain imaging studies.
Rankin has found that the temporal lobes and the
parahippocampus are involved in picking up the sarcastic
tone of voice. While the left hemisphere of the brain
seems to be responsible for interpreting literal
statements, the right hemisphere and both frontal lobes
seem to be involved in figuring out when the literal
statement is intended to mean exactly the opposite,
according to a study by researchers at the University of
Or you could just get a sarcasm detection device. It
turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize
sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer
scientists in Jerusalem developed their "Semi-supervised
Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification." The program was
able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in
Amazon purchaser comments like "Great for insomniacs" in
a book review. The scientists say that a computer that
could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of
summarizing user opinions in product reviews.
The University of Southern California's Signal Analysis
and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that
their "automatic sarcasm recognizer," a set of computer
algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of
"yeah, right" in recorded telephone conversations more
than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest
that a computerized phone operator that understands
sarcasm can be programmed to "get" the joke with
Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah,
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