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Abstract

Communicating would be a lot easier if everyone just said what he or she meant. But they do not; sometimes people are sarcastic and actually say the opposite of what they mean. Why do people do this? How do we learn to understand sarcasm? What happens in our brains when we are processing sarcasm? These are the questions addressed in scientific research on sarcasm. Here, I explain some of what we have learned from research on these questions. Understanding sarcasm is a challenge for young children, for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and for some patients with brain damage. Understanding sarcasm depends on advanced language skills and reasoning about other people’s minds, and it is supported by a network of brain regions.
November 2018 | Volume 6 | Article 56 | 1kids.frontiersin.org
NEUROSCIENCE
Published: 09 November 2018
doi: 10.3389/frym.2018.00056
HOW DO WE UNDERSTAND SARCASM?
Penny M. Pexman*
Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
Communicating would be a lot easier if everyone just said what he
or she meant. But they do not; sometimes people are sarcastic and
actually say the opposite of what they mean. Why do people do this?
How do we learn to understand sarcasm? What happens in our brains
when we are processing sarcasm? These are the questions addressed
in scientific research on sarcasm. Here, I explain some of what we have
learned from research on these questions. Understanding sarcasm is
a challenge for young children, for individuals with autism spectrum
disorders, and for some patients with brain damage. Understanding
sarcasm depends on advanced language skills and reasoning about
other people’s minds, and it is supported by a network of brain regions.
INTRODUCTION
In
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
, there is a scene where Harry
is leaving the Weasley house and Mrs. Weasley says: “Promise me you
will look after yourself…stay out of trouble….” Harry responds: “I always
do Mrs. Weasley. I like a quiet life, you know me.” Anyone familiar with
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Pexman The Science of Sarcasm
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Harry Potter knows that his life is far from quiet, and so he must not
really mean what he is saying. In fact, Harry is being sarcastic.
It seems logical to assume that, when we speak, our main goal is for
other people to understand exactly what we mean. It is surprising,
then, that we sometimes say the opposite of what we mean, speaking
sarcastically as Harry does in his response to Mrs. Weasley. Recently,
scientific research has given us some good ideas about why we do this,
and about how we understand sarcastic speech.
WHY DO WE USE SARCASM?
Sarcasm has been part of human language for thousands of years. We
often use it to be funny, just as Harry does when he speaks sarcastically
to Mrs. Weasley. He is trying to be funny and succeeds in making Mrs.
Weasley chuckle. We also use sarcasm to talk about things that have
not gone the way we expected: we were hoping for good weather
for our baseball tournament and it rained, so we say “Great day for a
baseball game!” When these things happen, sarcasm can be one way of
pointing it out, or criticizing, and at the same time being funny. Some
sarcasm is very familiar; sayings like “Yeah, right” or “Thanks a lot” are
often used sarcastically. These familiar forms of sarcasm are the type
that children usually use first when they begin using sarcasm, around
age four or five. Adults and older children often use more complex and
creative forms of sarcasm, like Harry does in the example above. More
complex forms of sarcasm usually fit a specific situation and can be a
way of hiding criticism from a listener. In addition to age dierences,
there are also personal dierences in the way sarcasm is used: some
people use sarcasm a lot and others use it very little (Box 1).
SARCASM
A form of everyday
language in which the
speaker says the
opposite of what he or
she means, typically
with a distinct tone of
voice, to be critical in a
funny way.
We can communicate a sarcastic idea with emoticons or with gesture. For instance,
if a friend falls down the stairs and we clap for them, we are using sarcastic gesture.
In one study, we looked at communication in 118 family groups. In each family
group, one parent and two children worked together to complete a challenging
game [1]. We saw examples of both verbal sarcasm (in 32% of families) and gestural
sarcasm (in 80% of families), used by parents and by children. In an example of
gestural sarcasm, one child gave her sibling a slow pat on the back when her sibling
failed on his turn in the game. Some families were very sarcastic, using sarcasm
many times, and others did not use it at all. Family members seemed to “catch”
sarcasm from each other: the use of sarcasm by one member of the family was
related to use by others in the family.
Box 1
Box 1
Did you know? It is
possible to be sarcastic
without words.
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WHAT IF WE MISS THE SARCASM?
Most adults hear sarcastic speech every day and understand it without
much diculty. To understand sarcasm, they rely on the speaker’s tone
of voice, facial expression, and their knowledge of what the speaker is
referring to and how the speaker might feel about it. However, some
people struggle to understand sarcasm and tend to think the speaker
literally means what he or she has said. The literal meaning is the actual,
dictionary meaning of the words used. If you do not understand the
sarcasm in what a person says, you miss the joke and may feel left out
of the conversation. This can lead to some dicult social situations.
WHEN DO CHILDREN “GET” SARCASM?
In research in my laboratory, we have found that young children do not
usually understand sarcasm until they are 5–6 years old, and they may
not find sarcasm funny until they are even older. We study how chil-
dren understand sarcasm by presenting short puppet shows, in which
one puppet says something sarcastic to the other puppet; for instance,
“That was a great play” in a puppet show about a soccer game, after one
puppet kicks the ball wide of the net and out of bounds. We then ask
children a series of simple questions to figure out whether they under-
stood the sarcasm. This work has shown that while 5- to 6-year-old
children may understand that the speaker means the opposite of what
he or she has said, the children do not understand why the speaker
would talk that way; they do not see the humor [2]. Children start to see
the humor in sarcasm around 8 or 9 years of age. At younger ages, the
jokes that children find funny usually involve unexpected words (“How
did the farmer fix his jeans? With a cabbage patch!”) or situations (like
falling o a trampoline). Around 9 years of age children start to find
more humor in teasing other people and also in sarcasm.
In another version of our puppet show task, children tell us what they
think the speaker means without having to say much at all. Instead,
they show us what the speaker means by choosing one of two objects
and putting the object in an answer box (Video available online at:
http://fron.tiers.in/go/Gwc32Y). Children are trained in advance that,
if they think the puppet has said something nice, they should pick up
the “nice duck” and put it in the answer box, and if they think the pup-
pet has said something mean, they should pick up the “mean shark”
and put it in the answer box. So, if the children choose the duck, they
are showing us that they think the speaker means something nice (the
literal meaning). If they choose the shark, they are showing us they
think the speaker is being mean (the sarcastic meaning). At the begin-
ning of each experiment, the shark and duck are placed on the table,
VIDEO
Shark/Duck Task: To see
if children understand
sarcasm, we present
short puppet shows
about everyday events
(like a soccer game), in
which one puppet says
something sarcastic to
the other puppet, like
“That was a great play.” A
camera placed behind
the experimenter tracks
the child’s eye gaze as
the child decides
whether what the puppet
said was sarcastic. If the
child thinks the speaker
was being mean
(sarcastic), he or she
chooses the shark and
puts it in the answer box.
If the child thinks the
speaker was being nice
(literal) he or she chooses
the duck and puts it in
the answer box. By
tracking the children’s
eyes, we can figure out
what the children are
thinking about when
they are making their
decision about what the
puppet said.
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one to the left and one to the right of the child. We put a video camera
nearby to continuously record where the children are looking and how
long they take when they are making their decisions. Studying where
people are looking when they perform a task is called eye tracking.
Eye tracking gives researchers clues about what is happening in the
brain, because scientists have shown that people tend to look at what-
ever it is they are thinking about. If children look at the shark while they
are making their decision, we assume that they are thinking about the
shark (the sarcastic meaning). If children look at the duck while they
are making their decision, we assume that they are thinking about the
duck (the literal meaning). After selecting the shark or the duck, chil-
dren are asked two simple questions about what the speaker believed
and whether the speaker was trying to be funny. With this experiment,
children can demonstrate their understanding of sarcasm without hav-
ing to explain themselves. This makes this experiment a good choice
for use with young children, who are just developing their language
skills, and for children with an autism spectrum disorder, who tend to
struggle with explaining what people mean.
Using this shark/duck experiment, we were able to test two possible
ways to explain how children might process sarcastic language [3]. One
theory, called the
literal first account
, suggests that children must first
think about the literal meaning before they can figure out that the lit-
eral meaning does not fit, then they move on to the sarcastic meaning.
According to this theory, in our experiment, children would look first at
the literal response object (the duck) before shifting gaze to the sarcas-
tic response object (the shark). The other theory, called the
interactive
account
, suggests that children do not need to think about the literal
meaning first, because they can think about the sarcastic meaning as
soon as they hear the puppet’s words. According to this theory, in our
experiment, children would not necessarily look at the duck first. Our
results showed that even 5-year-old children, who are just beginning to
understand sarcasm, tend to look at the shark first (not the duck) when
they hear the puppet’s sarcastic words. They look at the shark first 85% of
the time. These results are better explained using the interactive account,
meaning that the children do not need to think about the literal meaning
of the puppet’s words before they think about the sarcastic meaning.
We also used this shark/duck procedure in a dierent study with 31
8-year-old children. First, we measured the children’s empathy skills.
Empathy is a person’s ability to be sensitive to the thoughts and feel-
ings of others. We found that children who had higher scores on the
empathy test were more likely to detect sarcasm, and also to look at
the shark first in our shark/duck experiment [4]. These findings show
that being empathetic and able to understand what is going on in other
people’s minds may be important for understanding sarcastic speech.
EYE TRACKING
A research method in
which a camera
records the position of
a person’s eyes to
measure what they are
looking at. Based on
eye position,
researchers can tell
what a person is
thinking about while
they perform a task.
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DO PEOPLE WITH AN AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER
UNDERSTAND SARCASM?
People with an autism spectrum disorder usually have a hard time
understanding sarcasm and may take sarcastic speech literally. This
makes it hard for them to understand teasing and joking. We used the
shark/duck experiment in a study with a group of 19 children with autism
spectrum disorders [5]. We compared the results from this group of
children with the results from a group of 19 children who did not have
autism spectrum disorders. We found that the children with autism
spectrum disorders were just as able to detect sarcasm as the children
without these disorders. The children with autism spectrum disorders
made their choices more quickly: they took on average 3.56 s to put
the shark in the answer box, compared with 4.34 s for the non-autistic
group. Although they were accurate and fast, the children with autism
spectrum disorders did not detect that the sarcastic puppet was trying
to be funny, while the other children did. This study shows that children
who have an autism spectrum disorder can sometimes understand sar-
castic speech. This may be because the examples of sarcasm we used
in our experiment were quite simple, and the children did not have to
explain themselves in words to show their understanding. Instead, they
just had to pick the correct object.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN WHEN WE HEAR SARCASM?
Sarcastic speech can also be challenging for people who have had
brain injuries. These people may lose the ability to understand sarcasm
after the injury, especially when the injury causes damage to the right
half of the brain (also called the right hemisphere). When the damage
is to the left hemisphere, diculties understanding sarcasm tend to be
less severe [6]. In a recent study, researchers in Baltimore [7] studied
the sarcasm understanding of 24 adults who had suered a stroke. In
a stroke, blood flow to a part of the brain is cut o and the brain cells
in that area die. All of the patients had strokes that aected the right
hemisphere of the brain. The researchers used an imaging technique
called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to pinpoint exactly where the
stroke had damaged the brain. The researchers also gave the patients a
test to see how well they understood sarcasm. The patients were asked
to read simple pairs of sentences that had either a sarcastic tone of
voice or a non-sarcastic tone of voice, and the patients judged which
sentences were sarcastic. For example, “This new show is not bad.
It is complete rubbish.” They found that the patients who had the most
diculty with the sarcasm test also tended to have more extensive
damage in a part of the brain called the right sagittal stratum (Figure 1,
pronounced
saj-ih-tahl strah-tum
). The sagittal stratum is a bundle of
AUTISM SPECTRUM
DISORDERS
A group of brain
development disorders
that aect a person’s
language abilities and
interactions with other
people.
MAGNETIC
RESONANCE IMAGING
MRI
A method used to form
pictures of the internal
structures of the
human body, including
the human brain.
Pexman The Science of Sarcasm
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nerve fibers that connects several regions of the brain that help with
processing of information that helps people to understand sarcasm–
both visual information, like facial expressions, and sounds, like tone of
voice. The researchers concluded that the right sagittal stratum must
be important for understanding sarcasm.
Other research suggests that many brain areas besides the right
sagittal stratum are involved in understanding sarcasm. A group of
researchers in France [8] presented 21 healthy adults with sarcastic
and literal speech. The adults decided whether each example was
sarcastic or literal, while having their brain activity measured with a
type of MRI called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The researchers found that understanding sarcasm was related to
activity in several brain regions, including the left inferior frontal gyrus
and the right inferior frontal gyrus (Figure 2). The areas that were
found to be involved in understanding sarcasm included areas on
the left side of the brain that are involved in understanding language
in general, and areas on the right side of the brain that are involved
in understanding other people’s mental states and recognizing that
something is funny.
Both of these imaging studies gave us important information about brain
areas linked to understanding sarcasm. We do not yet know how these
areas might work together to create a full understanding of sarcasm.
In addition, the studies described here used very simple sarcasm tasks,
and a goal for future research is to identify the brain networks that
support understanding of statements like Harry’s, in his conversation
with Mrs. Weasley, where context and knowledge of earlier events are
important for sarcasm detection. Researchers are working to answer
many of these questions using the kinds of tasks and methods I have
described in this article. In future research on this topic, it will be
FUNCTIONAL
MAGNETIC
RESONANCE IMAGING
fMRI
A form of magnetic
resonance imaging that
can tell scientists which
parts of the brain are
active by measuring
changes in blood flow
to specific brain areas.
Figure 1
Figure 1
In this figure, you are
viewing the brain as if
you were looking at the
person’s face. The right
sagittal stratum is shown
in red. This area of the
brain is made up of
nerve fibers that
connect many parts of
the right hemisphere. In
stroke patients, damage
to the area shown here
in red is related to
problems understanding
sarcasm [7].
Pexman The Science of Sarcasm
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important to figure out whether understanding sarcasm can be taught,
and what the best method of training might be, so we can help chil-
dren and others who struggle to understand sarcasm when it is used
in everyday speech.
REFERENCES
1. Pexman, P. M., Zdrazilova, L., McConnachie, D., Deater-Deckard, K., and Petrill,
S. A. 2009. “That was smooth, mom”: children’s production of verbal and
gestural irony.
Metaphor Symbol
24:237–48. doi: 10.1080/10926480903310286
2. Harris, M., and Pexman, P. M. 2003. Children’s perceptions of the social functions
of verbal irony.
Discourse Process.
36:147–65. doi: 10.1207/S15326950DP3603_1
3. Climie, E. A., and Pexman, P. M. 2008. Eye gaze provides a window on
children’s understanding of verbal irony.
J. Cogn. Dev.
9:257–85. doi: 10.1080/
15248370802247939
4. Nicholson, A., Whalen, J. M., and Pexman, P. M. 2013. Children’s processing of
emotion in ironic language.
Front. Dev. Psychol.
4:691. doi: 10.3389/
fpsyg.2013.00691
5. Pexman, P. M., Rostad, K. R., McMorris, C. A., Climie, E. A., Stowkowy, J., and
Glenwright, M. R. 2011. Processing of ironic language in children with High
Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder.
J. Autism Dev. Disord.
41:1097–112.
doi: 10.1007/s10803-010-1131-7
6. Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Tomer, R., Berger, B. D., Goldsher, D., and Aharon-Peretz,
J. 2005. Impaired “aective theory of mind” is associated with right
ventromedial prefrontal damage.
Cogn. Behav. Neurol.
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doi: 10.1097/01.wnn.0000152228.90129.99
7. Davis, C. L., Oishi, K., Faria, A. V., Hsu, J., Gomez, Y., Mori, S., et al. 2016. White
matter tracts critical for recognition of sarcasm.
Neurocase
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8. Obert, A., Gierski, F., Calmus, A., Flucher, A., Portefaix, C., Pierot, L., et al. 2016.
Neural correlates of contrast and humor: processing common features of
verbal irony.
PLoS ONE
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Figure 2
Figure 2
In this figure, you are
viewing the brain from
the left side (left panel)
and from the right side
(right panel). The left
and right inferior frontal
gyri are shown in blue.
These brain areas were
seen to be more active
when participants
listened to sarcastic
statements than when
they listened to literal
statements [8], although
other areas of the brain
are also involved.
Pexman The Science of Sarcasm
November 2018 | Volume 6 | Article 56 | 8kids.frontiersin.org
SUBMITTED: 09 March 2018; ACCEPTED: 26 September 2018;
PUBLISHED ONLINE: 09 November 2018.
EDITED BY: Kathleen Y. Haaland, University of New Mexico, United States
CITATION: Pexman PM (2018) How Do We Understand Sarcasm? Front. Young
Minds 6:56. doi:10.3389/frym.2018.00056
CONFLICT OF INTEREST STATEMENT: The author declares that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be
construed as a potential conflict of interest.
COPYRIGHT © 2018 Pexman. This is an open-access article distributed under the
terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution
or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the
copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited,
in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction
is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
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AUTHOR
PENNY M. PEXMAN
I am a Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary, Canada. I am a cognitive
scientist and I study how we understand language. I use lots of dierent methods in
my research, including eye tracking and brain imaging. When studying what children
understand about language I use fun tasks and puppet shows so my lab is home to
a large collection of puppets and props. I first started studying the psychology of
sarcasm when I was an undergraduate student, over 25 years ago, and it has been an
important part of my research program ever since. *pexman@ucalgary.ca
... Through the evolution of their brain, sapiens have acquired a polygonal crossroad of associational fibers called sagittal stratum (SS), cf. Figure 1 2 , to cope with this complexity. Researchers have reported [34] that the bundle of nerve fibers that comprises the SS and connects several regions of the brain that help with processing of information enables people to understand sarcasm through sensory modalities -both 2 Reprinted from [6] with permission by Springer Nature, order #4841991468054. ...
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