The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right.
November 17, 2011 6:01 PM   Subscribe

“Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention.” How do humans separate sarcasm from sincerity? Research on the subject is leading to insights about how the mind works. Really. previously
posted by the man of twists and turns (27 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes I wish I could move to Betelgeuse, where they don't have sarcasm.
posted by Gator at 6:16 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

OMG what a wasted opportunity for HAMBURGER
posted by nathancaswell at 6:17 PM on November 17, 2011

Interesting article I never realize how much sarcasm I use till I hang around with my mom, who can't discern it at all.

Loved this short Kids in the Hall bit:

Apologies: my phone's not letting me link! Ugh.
posted by Occula at 6:19 PM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs

Whoa. I tend to be wary of the etymological fallacy, but I'll probably be less sarcastic now.
posted by Beardman at 6:21 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Of course the human brain has to work harder to detect sarcasm. Isn't that the entire point of sarcasm, to make a statement that's so obvious that the listener intuits the meaning is the opposite? Isn't that obvi--

WAIT A MINUTE. Well played, researchers.
posted by JHarris at 6:31 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll be generally less sarcastic if the world will be generally less full of shit.
posted by philip-random at 6:42 PM on November 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

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.

I understand this. When I was a bratty sarcastic tween, teen, and, I guess, now, I remember being so bored out of my mind that expressing myself non-sarcastically like everyone else seemed dreadfully tedious. But my family pretended to not understand what I was saying and then get pissed off.

I also use sarcasm when straight-forward language can't seem to express the magnitude or importance of what I mean. It's like the meaning is so strong it explodes out of its own meanings and goes all the way around into opposite words.
posted by bleep at 6:50 PM on November 17, 2011

Mod note: added "previously" per OP request, carry on.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:50 PM on November 17, 2011

Pexman said she has encountered children as young as 4 who say, “smooth move, mom” at a parent’s mistake.

I have also encountered those children.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:11 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't we have a powerful sarcasm detector called brain already?

For a startert, one can try to distinguinsh between irony and sarcasm, which often get mixed, by getting examples of irony from Alanis Morisette's Ironic song.
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn't it ironic ... don't you think
and examples of Sarcasm
"Oh, a sarcasm detector. That’s a really useful invention!"
(Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons)
Adrian Monk: This is my assistant, Sharona.
Ambrose Monk: Hello, we spoke on the phone.
Adrian Monk: Oh, so you can dial a telephone! I was worried. I thought you might be paralyzed, or something.
Ambrose Monk: I wasn't paralyzed.
Adrian Monk: I was being sarcastic.
Ambrose Monk: You were being sardonic. Sarcasm is a contemptuous ironic statement. You were being mockingly derisive. That's sardonic.

(Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro in "Mr. Monk and the Three Pies." Monk, 2004)

Confused enough already?
posted by elpapacito at 7:14 PM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Alanis Morisette is certainly my go to expert on the precise nature of irony.
posted by joannemullen at 7:34 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recommend Jon Agee's excellent book Terrific for anyone who wants to introduce youngsters to the wonderful world of sarcasm.
posted by asperity at 7:40 PM on November 17, 2011

Pexman said she has encountered children as young as 4 who say, “smooth move, mom” at a parent’s mistake.

I have also encountered those children.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:11 PM on November 17 [+] [!]

So have my parents.
posted by Maisie at 7:58 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:17 PM on November 17, 2011

We still have the "idiot detector" our son made, unprompted, out of pipe cleaners. He used it unscrupulously (or scrupulously, your pick) to vet all who entered our house.

He is 22 now and doesn't seem to need it anymore. But we're keeping it anyway. Rainy days and keepsakes.
posted by emhutchinson at 8:43 PM on November 17, 2011

My teen with Aspergers can be extremely sarcastic, but he has difficulty picking it up in other people. Sometime he asks me if I'm serious after I've made a snarky remark. I respond with "what do you think, Abed?" and he gets that he's being obtuse and then we make kickpuncher jokes.

On a more serious note, I wonder why his brain can formulate it but not hear it. Even sometimes when he's watching Jon Stewart he has to stop and ask if a joke was meant sincerely. He always assumes sincerity.

Oh and the phrase is "smooth move, exlax" Sheeseh.
posted by Biblio at 9:16 PM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

On a more serious note, I wonder why his brain can formulate it but not hear it

Just guessing here.... He's probably formulating it by emulation, doing what he observes other people doing. Does he also sometimes have problems determining if he's being too subtle or harsh with sarcastic remarks?

In any case, as the researchers have discovered, recognizing it can be a surprisingly hard problem. Sarcasm is making a statement that's so obvious that the listener recognizes the humor in it. That requires understanding if a thing is obvious to another person, which isn't always easy even to people with "normal" brains.
posted by JHarris at 9:29 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sarcasm bothered me a lot in the first 30 years of my life. I found it difficult to be certain when I was hearing it, and safer to assume a person wasn't being sarcastic. I must have got burned somehow, a few times, from forming the wrong conclusion. Hmm, sounds like something that bitch* might have done.
*bitch: my mother.
posted by Goofyy at 9:54 PM on November 17, 2011

I forgot to say, he made it--the "idiot detector," when he was three. If age matters.
posted by emhutchinson at 9:59 PM on November 17, 2011

Sometimes I wish I could move to Betelgeuse, where they don't have sarcasm.

I can't tell if you're sincere or not.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:59 PM on November 17, 2011

oh, he's being completely sincere
posted by philip-random at 10:19 PM on November 17, 2011

"On a more serious note, I wonder why his brain can formulate it but not hear it"

My mom cannot understand sarcasm, but she can dish it out like a chef on fire*. Unfortunately it's performed very badly and just comes across as smashingly abrupt and mean. Like, imagine if we're all having a nice dinner and then she gets everyone's attention so that she can insult the guest about what he or she is wearing (meaning, she likes it so much that it should be the next discussion topic). And then wonders why nobody is running with it. Years of this and I can finally see that she's attempting to be sarcastic; I can even see in her face now when she's preparing, formulating the sling and delivery. And then I brace myself for what's next...complete alienation for all.

As far as her perceiving the sarcastic stimulus originating from outside her own head? Forget it.

These are two very separate processes, but because she fails spectacularly at both – and in different ways – it's easy for me to see what's going on (but much harder to articulate it, unfortunately).

She has this desire to be funny and socially competent and she sees all these successful exemplars of that from the people around her, her culture, her social environment. However, it's not that she experiences the successful exchanges, but rather she learns that it was a successful exchange from the others around her, after the fact. You can see this by her reaction, which is often in the form of a question seeking someone to validate her interpretation of what happened or to clarify what she missed.

It's similar to people being able to emulate accents. There's at least three components that must be mastered: perception, processing, production. In perception, you must be able to hear the differences, the nuances in the speech signal. In processing, you must be able to map those differences onto the mental landscape of who says what and in what context. In production, you must master the coordination of all the articulators and components involved (teeth, tongue, breath, velum, etc.). If you've missed out on perception and processing, production is going to be a mess. However, we can practice and overcome the failings of our perception and/or processing. Some people are more skilled at certain areas than others. (I'm a processing machine, but a production failure.)

Anyways, you can imagine how fun dinner parties were at my house.

*I meant that literally. With flames.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:17 AM on November 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I *thought* I had read an article about this...and I found it! If you want to read more about acoustic properties of sarcasm, this is a nice one:
Joseph Tepperman, David Traum, and Shrikanth Narayanan
The robust understanding of sarcasm in a spoken dialogue system requires a reformulation of the dialogue manager’s basic assumptions behind, for example, user behavior and grounding strategies. But automatically detecting a sarcastic tone of voice is not a simple matter. This paper presents some experiments toward sarcasm recognition using prosodic, spectral, and contextual cues. Our results demonstrate that spectral and contextual features can be used to detect sarcasm as well as a human annotator would, and confirm a long-held claim in the field of psychology – that prosody alone is not sufficient to discern whether a speaker is being sarcastic.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:55 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

"...the use of sarcasm itself indicates an abnormal state of mind, and its frequent cultivation during a certain epoch, or in a certain country, is almost an infallible symptom of disease in some quarter."

Sir Charles Waldstein
posted by IndigoJones at 6:54 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sarcasm and earnestness seem to be opposites. So it seems like a way to signal sarcasm is to exaggerate being earnest? Is it was a rock paper scissors game, sarcasm beats earnestness, but what beats sarcasm?
posted by jasper411 at 12:36 PM on November 18, 2011

bacon and cheese; whereby interlocutors who have found themselves the keeper of snarky remarks but not bacon and cheese must reassess their discourse strategies and beg forgiveness, deliver platitudes or wave money in order to obtain the sweet deliciousness. These are the only two things that I have found in my years of saying stupid shit and eating everything that trumps sarcasm.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:52 PM on November 18, 2011

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