Science: Jerks Don’t Understand Sarcasm, Explaining 95 Percent Of Our Letters To The Editor

Science: Jerks Don't Understand Sarcasm, Explaining 95 Percent Of Our Letters To The EditorEveryone would like to think that the ability to get irony and sarcasm has something to do with being smart — it just makes sense, after all, that picking up on the subtle cues that a statement isn’t meant to be taken at face value has something to do with intelligence, or discernment, or something like that. And god knows when we don’t pick up on a sarcastic remark, we definitely feel dumb. While I suspect that there’s probably something to that, some recent research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that, in children at least, the ability to understand irony and sarcasm appears to be related to the child’s ability to empathize with others.

This may also be why the most teabaggedly conservative jerks seem incapable of recognizing irony — they’re so concerned with themselves that they can’t, or won’t, imagine that another point of view is possible. It would certainly help explain some of the more clueless “dear shit-fer-brains” comments that we have so much fun with at our sister site, or the surprising number of outraged condemnations of Planned Parenthood’s “Abortionplex” as reported by The Onion — including one from a Republican congressman.

In a press release, the journal notes:

For children, sarcastic language can be difficult to understand. They generally begin to recognize sarcasm between ages 6 and 8, especially familiar sarcastic praise such as “Thanks a lot!” and “Nice going!” But some children take much longer to begin to understand sarcasm, with detection improving even through adolescence.

In a new study, Penny Pexman, Juanita Whalen, and Andrew Nicholson investigated whether differences in the ability of children to empathize with others might help to explain why.

Specifically, the researchers believed that empathy might be important because “in order to understand sarcasm children must be able to adopt the perspective of the speaker — to understand the speaker’s attitude and emotions.” Frankly, that’s the kind of thing that I find exciting, and that I like to throw at anyone who drags out the old E.B White line, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

So here’s the summary of the research methodology and findings:

The study involved 31 children between 8 and 9 years old in a task that required them to recognize sarcasm. After children watched a series of puppet shows that included either sarcastic or non-sarcastic praise, they were asked to pick up a “mean” toy shark if they believed that the puppets had spoken sarcastically, or a “nice” duck otherwise. Each child was tested 12 times, with different puppets and scenarios. The empathy skills of the children were measured separately.

Children detected the puppets’ sarcasm about half of the time, and children with relatively strong empathy skills did so more accurately. Children with stronger empathy skills were nearly twice as accurate as children with less advanced empathy skills.

I’m also betting that there are some pretty good frustrating stories behind a dead end the researchers encountered: “Initially, the researchers analyzed a group of 6-7 year olds, but this age group revealed almost zero accuracy for sarcasm.”

And while that connection between empathy and recognizing irony seems valid, it leaves plenty of questions open, most especially why it is that some children develop the ability to empathize, to learn irony, earlier or more strongly than others. To what degree is it a matter of practice and habit and exposure? To what degree is it a matter of differences in the physical structure of the brain, i.e. mirror neurons? And how, if at all, does that carry through to adults, and maybe even to politics?

Now, this is where the vestigial academic in me starts jumping up and down and screaming “you need to label this speculation!” so consider it labeled. But it is there maybe a link between conservatives — the libertarian types, especially — who make a virtue of selfishness, and a corresponding tendency to be humorless? For that matter, remember when Barack Obama said he’d be looking for Supreme Court nominees who valued “empathy,” and a lot of conservatives lost their shit? A judge with empathy? Why, that would completely destroy our system of law, which is…devoid of empathy?

futileTaken to its extreme, in Ayn Rand’s fantasies, empathy and altruism become actual vices — or at least, are so damaging to the highest value, the devotion to Individualism, that they should never, ever be compelled. I mention this mostly so I can throw in this screenshot from the Simpsons episode where Maggie is sent to daycare at the “Ayn Rand School for Tots.”

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of sarcasm on the right — consider this awful attempt at satire by blogger Matt Walsh (who is not Matt Walsh the comedian from Upright Citizens Brigade, thank god):

Personally, I hate scare tactics. You should never let anyone scare you away from supporting socialized medicine, mostly because without it every poor person in the country will get sick and die. Anyway, like I said, I disapprove of scare tactics.

So, definite sarcasm, but also satire that’s aimed at lampooning the very idea of empathy — don’t be ridiculous, not all the poor will get sick and die. They can still go to emergency rooms, after all.

As a visit to the comments section of any rightwing blog demonstrates, there’s no shortage of sarcasm on the right, but it sure seems to involve a lot of sneering. Maybe rightwingers can empathize with each other pretty well, but they hit a roadblock when they try to think outside their own interests? Since the very idea of empathy or helping other people is so often the target of conservative sarcasm, maybe it’s a matter of placing empathy for their own group and values on a higher plane than empathy for outsiders, which is how you get conservatives insisting that the best way to help poor people is to cut food stamps, so that they can learn to depend on themselves.

[Ed note: And we’re back to mirror neurons again!]

We should definitely look into this further, possibly by testing people’s ability to recognize The Onion as fake news. The study should probably avoid using toy sharks and duckies, though, since any libertarians in the experimental group would just declare that the sharks have a natural right to eat the ducks.

[Frontiers in Psychology]

You may also like...