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]

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  • msanthropesmr

    What about the desire to “dish” sarcasm? If that is correlated to empathy, I might be the most empathetic person I know.

  • Kip TW

    Tedious comment section bullies seem to ignore sarcasm and irony as a tactic as well, and if someone pulls it on them, conclude that they must be stupid. The status of their empathic abilities is suggested by how irate they will get when a milder version of one of their tactics is used against them, and the denial they fly into when this is pointed out.If they ever encountered a mirror neuron in themselves, they’d probably try and fight with it.

  • BigRedDog

    Thanks a lot, Dok!

  • natl_[redacted]_cmdr

    Thanks, Onion!

  • Farb

    As an aside: Years and years ago I spoke with someone who had known Ayn Rand. They had a slight affinity in political and economic perspective, but this person told me that in his opinion Ayn Rand was a “mean spirited shit” who saw everything in black and white, and in terms of herself. And here I thought of her as merely unattractive.

  • ZorakHendrix

    Well, to be fair, The Onion’s “Abortionplex” is just as plausible (ok, much more plausible) than at least 75% of what the average TeaTrooper believes to be true. I mean really, have you seen these guys speechifying in front of Congress, in front of cameras and microphones, in front of impressionable children!?!Ok, I was making a funny there. Children don’t watch C-SPAN.

  • coozledad

    There is a republican species of irony, but it’s cargo cult irony, a crude wooden model of the airplane they see flying over their destitute island.If they rub the wooden model long enough, it starts to look like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, and they can hate fuck it.

    • nightmoth

      Daaauhmn, coozle! That’s some mighty fine sarcasm! Thx.

  • blowitup

    a great case example for this would be steven colbert’s address at the national press club a few years back. the republicans invited him because they didn’t get the joke — that the colbert report is using sarcasm and irony to make fun of right wingers. somehow, they missed all of that.i’ve never seen such an uncomfortable crowd in my life, as colbert eviscerated the right wingers in attendance.

  • SnarkOff

    Is this supposed to be funny?

    • $73376667

      Nah. Dok always punctuates his humor with ponies, so no ponies = no humor.

  • (((JustPixelz)))

    “Oh, a sarcasm detector. There’s a really useful invention.”It turns out there are real sarcasm detectors that are not in our brains. Computer programs that read emails and tweets and blog comments (Lookin’ at you SarcBot 2000!) to discern complaints that read like compliments. “Dear Pizza Hut. Your pizza is the best thing I’ve eaten in the past five minutes!”

  • Ed Faunce

    Wow, now I discover I have no sarcasm genes, THANKS OBAMA!

    • lofty1

      I’m giving you a shark puppet for that comment.

  • Bezoar

    Can I leave a comment, or is this like Wonkette?

  • mtn_philosoph

    So wait… how did the researchers identify which children had “relatively strong empathy skills?” I mean, these are 8- and 9- year olds we’re talking about, right? Not something that you can measure by taking a blood sample, for instance.I guess that I also need to point out the obvious: having weak sarcasm-detection skills at the age of 8 years does not preclude one from developing them later.There are a number of possible reasons why a young kid may be less aware of sarcasm than his or her peers.Having low self-esteem and being pathologically self-conscious around classmates (possibly as a result of abuse at home or bullying at school) would be one, for instance. This can sometimes go hand in hand with being more empathetic than average.

    • Zoe Kaftan

      I don’t think there was intentional correlation between the kids with poor skills and the adults. Just that some of those kids presumably never finished developing in this area, hence the people who don’t understand The Onion, even when explained it’s fake (which happens WAY too often as I am realizing on I just realized that what I just said does indeed count as correlation, but I meant to say that it wasn’t intended to be a consistent one.

  • kfreed

    You just nailed the problem with Libertarians: Humorless pricks. Maybe we can get them to donate their bodies to science – let the experts dissect their brains in order to figure out where the glitches are.

  • getthe factsJones

    I was talking to what in the USA would be a Tea Party supporter. (I am in the UK) He was complaining that all the comedians seem to be left wing. I explained to him that top do good comedy you have to be quite intelligent, and to understand it also. Was that ironical or sarcastic? or merely correct?

  • getthe factsJones

    Sorry for the spelling , My eyes aren’t so good

  • IFeedYou

    I know this article is old, but can’t help but respond because I find it so interesting. I arrived here after looking into why certain people simply cannot recognize sarcastic comments. Here is the thing, I am a conservative and the sole reason I started looking into this is because I notice the phenomenon happening almost exclusively with liberals. I found it funny that the sarcasm always seems to go right over their heads and they end up making a fool of themselves. I guess I’m commenting because it seems it is easy and a bit comforting to label the other side as unintelligent and then try and show proof. We noticed the same thing, but on other sides of the spectrum. As much as you want this to be proof that conservatives/libertarians have no emphathy because they don’t understand sarcasm, from my perspective it just isn’t the case and the opposite seemed likely…which is that liberals are too caught up in emotion to be able to see the sarcasm in a comment. I would guess you have a little confirmation bias going on with your findings here and that if I search a bit more I could also find confirmation of what I want the truth to be.

    The real truth is probably that not being able to recognize sarcasm is related to not having empathy and intelligence, just like these studies pointed out, BUT that it isn’t exclusively or even an above average phenomenom on either side of the political spectrum. Both sides have their idiots and depending on where you hang out on the internet, that will be confirmed however you like.