The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right
In an episode of “The Simpsons,” mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector.
“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 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 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 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 ly 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.
In an episode of “The Simpsons,” the Comic Book Guy's sarcasm causes Professor Frink's sarcasm detector to implode. (©2003THE SIMPSONS and TTCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED FOX)
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 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 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 ly to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.
Northerners also were more ly 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 ly 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 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 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 ly 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 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, 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 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 “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 “synthetic laughter.”
Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah, right.
Well, Duh: Why Sarcastic People Are Actually Proven To Be Smarter
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been called a “smart ass” over my 22 years of existence, I’d probably be sipping montrachet off the coast of Saint-Tropez right now, instead of writing this piece.
That title never really offended me, though; I’m a sarcastic piece of sh*t, I say it proudly [cue B-Rabbit voice]. That’s just how I was brought up. Not to mention I’ve been called worse things, and quite frankly, “smart ass” sort of has a ring to it.
It also might be dead on balls accurate [cue Mona Lisa Vito voice]. According to Smithsonian Mag, generally speaking, we “smart asses” ARE, in fact, scientifically smarter. Oh, the irony.
How is sarcasm linked with intelligence, you might ask? Well, think about it this: Sarcasm, in its rawest form, is stating one thing, but truly implying something else.
Typically the opposite. For instance, the first time I listened through Yeezus in full, I remember thinking to myself: “Well, Kanye’s humble.”
Obviously, I was being sarcastic. In actuality, Kanye West’s ego has been fed so thoroughly over the past couple of years – you would think it just tried the Paleo Diet and relapsed.
Having said that, the irony of sarcastic statements provokes emotion – and as the vocal sample in “Bound 2” faded out – my buddy and I shared a laugh thinking about “Kanye” and the word “humble” being used in the same sentence.
See, that’s how sarcasm works, and why it’s correlated with intellect. It’s a two-step process. To use, and detect, sarcasm, you need to grasp not just the scenario in front of you – but also aspects of that scenario that might be lacking.
As Richard Chin of Smithsonian writes, sarcasm requires a series of “mental gymnastics.” Sarcastic, satirical or ironic statements all compel the brain to “think beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different.”
Thus, in a way, sarcasm forces us to think one step ahead – a notion that science defends. In one experiment, by attaching electrodes to the brain and monitoring their activity (in response to sarcastic and non-sarcastic statements), electrical activity levels were increased when test subjects were exposed to sarcasm.
Over time, this increased bulk of cognitive-expenditure doesn’t go to waste. Chin describes active sarcasm use as a means of “mental exercise,” which is useful because it provides us with an illusory comparison.
Think about abdominal crunches. If you do a few sets of 100 each night, over time, your core is bound to be toned. Sarcasm, as a form of “mental exercise,” functions the same way. Over time, that “extra work” brought forth by sarcasm leaves our brains toned, too.
As you can see, it’s by no accident that Dwight Schrute sits atop the ranks of salesmen, as top dawg at Dunder Mifflin. And as for the failures of a one George Costanza – well, with all things, there are exceptions.
For the most part, however, sarcasm is not only linked to intelligence – but also to aggression. In a separate study, conducted by cognitive psychologist Albert Katz at the University of Western Ontario, those more “fluent” in sarcasm also scored higher on aggression tests.
As Katz suggests, one reason behind this finding is that aggressive people can “decode” that two-step process of sarcasm-perception, more quickly. Still, while these findings might encourage you to add a little (or a lot of) snark to your daily interactions, I suggest doing so with caution.
While you may think you’re being clever, there’s a good chance you might end up being the only one laughing. That’s the risk you take every time you decide to speak tongue-in-cheek.
For that reason, always substantiate the “sarcasm-gauge” of those around you. As much as sarcasm is linked with, and can be easily detected by, smart people – keep in mind, the world is full of stupid people who won’t always appreciate your snide quips.
I, for one, will always appreciate your sarcasm – and, moreover, commend you for it. Not only are you providing humor to the “smart asses” around you, but you’re also doing mental calisthenics for yourself. Please, don’t ever change.
Photo Courtesy: Instagram