Monday, 22 February 2010

At what age do children recognise the difference between sarcasm and irony?

People hold strong feelings about the meanings of irony and sarcasm. Just look at the reaction to Alanis Morissette's global hit 'ironic' - despite commercial success, the apparent misunderstanding of irony conveyed by the song provoked a chorus of derision (at least everyone agreed that this state of affairs was ironic). So I'd say it's with some courage that Melanie Glenwright and Penny Pexman have chosen to investigate the tricky issue of when exactly children learn the distinction between sarcasm and irony. Their finding is that nine- to ten-year-olds can tell the difference, although they can't yet explicitly explain it. Four- to five-year-olds, by contrast, understand that sarcasm and irony are non-literal forms of language, but they can't tell the difference between the two.

So that we're all on the same page, here's what Glenwright and Pexman recognise as the distinction between sarcasm and irony. In both cases the speaker says the opposite of what they mean, but whereas an ironic statement is aimed at a situation, a sarcastic remark is aimed at a person and is therefore more cutting.

Glenwright and Pexman presented five- to six-year-olds and nine- to ten-year-olds with puppet show scenarios that ended with one of the characters making a critical remark. This remark could be literal, aimed at a person or situation, or it could non-literal, again aimed either at a person (i.e. sarcastic) or situation (i.e. ironic). To illustrate: two puppets are playing on a trampoline, one falls on his face. 'Great trampoline tricks,' the other character says, sarcastically. Contrast this with two puppets playing on a saggy trampoline with little bounce. One of them says 'great trampoline', an ironic remark.

To gauge the children's depth of understanding, the researchers asked them to rate how mean the utterances were (using a sliding scale of smiley to miserable faces) and asked them which character they most identified with - the idea being that in instances of sarcasm they would, out of sympathy, identify more with the target of that sarcasm.

The children's responses showed that both age groups recognised the non-literal utterances as intending to mean the opposite of what was said. However, only the older age group showed a sensitivity to the difference between irony and sarcasm. They, but not the younger children, rated sarcastic utterances as meaner and were more likely to identify with the target of sarcasm, presumably out of sympathy. The older children's comprehension was not complete, though. In open-ended questioning they were unable to explain their differential response to sarcasm and irony.

'By nine to ten years of age, children's sensitivity to the distinction between sarcasm and verbal irony highlights their impressive understanding of how people's feelings are affected by others' speech ...' the researchers said. 'We investigated one distinction here, but there are other non-literal forms that should be examined, such as understatement and hyperbole.'

ResearchBlogging.orgGlenwright M, & Pexman PM (2010). Development of children's ability to distinguish sarcasm and verbal irony*. Journal of child language, 37 (2), 429-51 PMID: 19523264

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


David Bockman said...

My own experiences with the abusive use of sarcasm against me as a child have sort of sensitized me to its use, and because of a great deal of selfwork I am finely attuned to detecting when it's being deployed subtley in conversation. My feelings are that sarcasm is incredibly destructive because it simultaenously implies the stupidity of the targeted individual while at the same time relying upon the intelligence of same for it to land its blow. I have never met a person who deploys sarcasm regularly who was not scornfully abused with it as a child. Irony (or perhaps wryness), is the joyful antithesis of sarcasm, because its use depends upon and reinforces the targeted individual's intelligence and wit.

Anonymous said...

"Ironically, you fail to understand that one can be sarcastic without being ironic", he said sarcastically.

Anonymous said...


Boo hoo...

John Haugeland said...

I openly question Glenwright and Pexman's research, on the basis that the vast bulk of adults I know have no clue what irony is.

Well, that and that Glenwright and Pexman have invented a completely false dichotomy between irony and sarcasm. Sarcasm is mere bitter speech; I am here being sarcastic, despite not having said an ironic word. It has nothing to do whatsoever with word meaning juxtaposition, which is solely the domain of irony.

The two are unrelated and frequently complementary. To try to draw a dividing line between them on specious grounds is something I wouldn't expect the BPS to fellate with attention. I seriously would have expected better quality of speech from two university professors trying to focus on meaning of speech.

At least they've got the definition of irony correct, though, which is uncommon amongst adults.

Does it not occur to the BPS to vet papers before reproducing them?

Rory Sullivan said...

Surely, saying "Great trampoline" still constitutes sarcasm - no wonder the children remained confused.

There are too many variables involved: Who does the trampoline belong to? If it belongs to the non-speaker, he is still going to feel hurt by the sarcky remark, even if it is aimed at the trampoline. If it is owned by the speaker, the comment is self-deprecating and still cutting. Etc, etc, the remark still remains sarcastic and cutting in some way.

It could be that the test subjects still felt like they were hearing sarcasm, but then they were told it was irony. Huh?

Irony, it would seem to me, has less to do with words - perhaps nothing to do with words - and more to do with situation.

The irony of the Alanis Morissette song, "Ironic", was that there was very little irony in it.

Anonymous said...

"Well, that and that Glenwright and Pexman have invented a completely false dichotomy between irony and sarcasm. Sarcasm is mere bitter speech; I am here being sarcastic, despite not having said an ironic word. It has nothing to do whatsoever with word meaning juxtaposition, which is solely the domain of irony."

The dictionary begs to differ.
"sarcastic: marked by or given to using irony in order to mock or convey contempt"

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