Sarcasm research: like there's news in that

Date published: 2006-04-13 10:22:18 AM

If you understand the verbal irony in that headline, you must be at least five to eight years old. And if you think it's funny, you're probably at least 10, according to new research by a University of Calgary psychologist.

Dr. Penny Pexman, who for the past six years has been researching sarcasm, says that although grownups tend to assume kids grasp the concept at an early age, they really don't appreciate all the social consequences—including humour—until some years later.

"People use sarcasm with kids all the time and then say, 'I'm just teasing,'" Pexman says. "It turns out that most children up until about the age of 10, or sometimes even later, don't really think sarcasm is that funny. And since it's one of the key components of bullying behaviour, it is important that we understand what factors help children to interpret sarcasm."

Pexman says researchers don't know for certain what determines sarcasm comprehension, but there's clearly more than just cognitive development. Possible factors include children's exposure to sarcasm at home, the social milieu that they come from, and the kinds of TV they're watching. Ironically, children's programming that contains uses of sarcasm may be largely lost on the intended audience.

Together with PhD student Melanie Harris, Pexman tested 64 children using puppets and scenarios involving the simplest types of sarcasm, or counter-factual communication. For example, in one case a restaurant customer who has ordered chicken wings receives salad instead. He says to the waiter, "You have a great memory." The kids were then asked what the customer meant, and if he was being mean or nice.

Pexman's research into the social and cognitive aspects of figurative language comprehension also includes studying adults and their use of sarcasm, as well as how proverbs are interpreted among children, young adults and older adults. Her research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Published with permission from the University of Calgary.