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See Inside October/November 2008

Are We Hardwired with a Sense of Irony?

Language has many layers of meaning. When and how do we grasp them?

“WELL, that’s just great.” Quick, what does that sentence mean? Is the speaker acknowledging some good news, celebrating a joyful event that just took place? Do we take the statement at face value? Or could the person who said it mean something quite different, maybe even the opposite? Perhaps his pleasure is not genuine.

The fact is we do not know. The words are ambiguous. The comment could be kind and authentic: imagine his daughter has just announced that she made the school honor roll for the first time. But he could just as well be stuck in rush-hour traffic, late for an important meeting. His comment in that case is probably not genuine at all but sarcastic.

How can we tell which is which? How as listeners do we recognize and comprehend irony? And what makes us use sarcasm and irony in the first place, when we could just as easily be literal and unambiguous? Communication is tricky enough without deliberately muddling things with hidden layers of meaning. What social purpose could such vagueness serve?

Language of Failed Expectations?
Psychologists are very interested in both how we use ironic language and how we see it for what it is. And there are lots of ideas. Some argue that ironic language is the language of failed expectations; it is a fact of the human condition that things do not always turn out as planned, and language needs to capture and highlight that ironic sense of life. But when and how does that sense of life emerge, and when do we develop the social competence to recognize it?

One way to approach these questions is to look at language comprehension in children. Youngsters have few life experiences to speak of, so it would seem that they should be innocent of its ironies. They should take every sentence they hear literally, unless they are given some reason not to do so. So, to stick with the same example: if someone says, “Well, that’s just great,” kids should simply believe it. They should not be expected to probe for deeper meaning. If they do probe, it should be as an afterthought.

But is that the case? Psychologist Penny M. Pexman of the University of Calgary in Alberta decided to explore this problem in the laboratory, to see how quick and efficient kids are at processing irony and sarcasm. She wanted to see how early in life this cognitive skill emerges. She also wanted to find out if indeed kids go through a two-step process every time they are confronted with irony—taking the literal meaning first, then perceiving the hidden meaning as an afterthought.

It is hard to study children’s minds, especially the five- to 10-year-old minds in Pexman’s studies. She could not entirely rely on them to report on their own thinking, so she had to devise special methods to probe their perceptions. Here is an example of what she did. In one experiment, she trained kids to associate niceness with a smiling yellow duck and meanness with a snarling gray shark. Then they watched puppet shows, in which the puppets made both sarcastic and literal remarks. Rather than asking the kids to interpret the remarks, she tracked their eye gaze, to see whether they shifted their attention ever so slightly toward the shark or the duck after a particular remark.

The results, reported in the August issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, were intriguing. If kids were indeed processing every sentence as literally true to begin with, then their eyes would reveal that. That is, they would look automatically at the duck on hearing “Well, that’s just great.” But they did not. When that sentence was used ironically, their eyes went immediately to the mean shark. The irony required no laborious cognitive crunching. They processed the insincerity as rapidly as they processed the basic meaning of the words.

Hints of Irony
So ironic sensibility appears to be hardwired into the neurons, although using and understanding irony also require social intelligence. Both children and adults need hints that a comment is ironic as opposed to literal. These hints come in the form of facial expression, tone of voice, knowledge of the speaker’s personality, and so forth. But all these social cues are processed instantaneously and integrated into a reliable sense of another person’s beliefs and intentions. Children with autism have difficulty doing this processing—that is, “theorizing” about what others are thinking and feeling. Interestingly, some autistic children also have difficulty appreciating irony and sarcasm, suggesting that the same brain abnormality may be linked to both deficits.

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