In an episode of “The Simpsons,” mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector.
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“Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention,” says another character, the Comic Book Guy, causing the machine to explode.
Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.
Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.”
Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.
“It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. 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.
That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors.
The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different. A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your brother says “nice job” when you spill the milk, he means just the opposite, the jerk.
Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.
Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. “How do you keep this room so neat?” a parent might say to a child, instead of “This room is a sty.”
But others researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.