Unempathetic Kids Don't Get Sarcasm

By Elizabeth Preston
Oct 11, 2013 11:01 PMNov 5, 2019 12:22 AM


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A crucial tool in your social survival kit is the ability to tell when someone means the opposite of what they're saying. For centuries, writers have tried to aid readers' detection of sarcasm with various typographic contortions: backward question marks, upside-down or zigzagged exclamation marks, even left-leaning italics dubbed "ironics."* (None of these have stuck, probably because pointing out when you're being sarcastic totally ruins it.)

For kids, sarcasm is a developmental hurdle to clear. At some point while they're growing up, they learn that positively worded statements—"Wow, great job"—aren't always positive. When psychologists at the University of Calgary began their recent study of kids and sarcasm, they started with a group of 6- and 7-year-olds. They expected that the children would be just beginning to grasp the skill. But when these kids showed "near-zero accuracy" at detecting irony, the researchers had to try again.

Thirty-one 8- and 9-year-olds became the new study group. For the experiment, each kid watched a series of 12 short puppet shows. The shows involved two puppet characters and ended with one of them saying either "That was so good" or "That was so bad"—sometimes literally and sometimes sarcastically. For example, one puppet misses a soccer goal; the other says, "That was SO GOOD." (A separate panel of adults had vouched for the sarcastic tone of the recorded dialogue.)

Kids had to decide after each show whether the final line of dialogue was nice or mean. They indicated their answers by picking up either a small plush duck or shark. (The actual niceness or ironic tendency of these animals was not addressed in the study.)

When the puppets' statements were literal, kids had no difficulty interpreting them as nice or mean. But the sarcastic statements gave them more trouble. Their accuracy as a group was a little under 50 percent; the researchers explain that about half the kids seemed to get it consistently, while the other half were "quite inaccurate" at spotting sarcasm.

Subjects' parents also filled out questionnaires about how empathetic their children were—a good understanding of other people's emotions might go along with an understanding of when people are being shark-ish or duck-ish. Kids with higher empathy scores did better in the sarcasm test. Additionally, explains senior author Penny Pexman, video footage revealed that kids with better empathy were slower when reaching for the wrong toy than their less empathetic peers. In other words, when empathetic kids failed to find the sarcasm, they struggled more with their answers. They may have sensed that there was another layer to the puppet's words: was that missed soccer goal really "so good"?

"We need to offer children extra supports when we use sarcasm," Pexman says. A second- or third-grader might have only a dim understanding of your clever one-liner. A first-grader will likely miss it entirely.

Additionally, "Encouraging children to be more empathetic has great benefits for understanding sarcastic speech," Pexman says. "We know from other research that empathy helps with other aspects of social functioning too." I mean, I GUESS that's a good thing.

*I learned about ironic punctuation in Keith Houston's book Shady Characters. There are a lot of good tidbits in there, from ampersands to octothorpes. The chapter on irony is summarized at Brain Pickings.

Image: by Spamily (via Flickr)

Andrew Nicholson, Juanita M. Whalen, & Penny M. Pexman (2013). Children's processing of emotion in ironic language. Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00691

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