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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 works. Really
By Richard Chin
SMITHSONIAN.COM
NOVEMBER 14, 2011


In an episode of The Simpsons, mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest
creation: a sarcasm detector.

Sarcasm detector? Thats 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 dont understand sarcasm are
immediately noticed. Theyre not getting it. Theyre 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. Whens 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 Arent you special means you arent.

Its 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 Language.

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 companys
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. Youre saying something you dont
literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener
gets that youre insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: its 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. Youre distancing yourself, youre making yourself superior,
Haiman says. If youre 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, youre saying both that you had hoped it would be sunny and
youre upset about the rain.

Were 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 its safer to risk some biting humor with someone youre
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 statements.

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 parents 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 hypothetical conversation.
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 isnt 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, Im not sorry.

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 dont 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 theres a blank face version of sarcasm delivery.

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, thats a bad sign, Rankin says. If you suddenly think Stephen Colbert is
truly right wing, thats 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 Haifa.
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 Californias 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 synthetic
laughter.

Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah, right.