How do humans distinguish sarcasm from sincerity?

Illustration for article titled How do humans distinguish sarcasm from sincerity?

Most of us are pretty good at picking up on sarcasm. Quite frankly, we have to be. Much of the way we communicate as a modern society is structured around subtle contextual cues that tell us whether someone's mockingly contemptuous or earnest. Many of us can even pick up on sarcasm when it's conveyed entirely via text.


As prevalent as sarcasm is, there remains much about it that we simply don't understand from a neuroscience perspective.

We suspect, for example, that sarcastic statements "exercise" the brain more than sincere ones, and that exposure to sarcasm can even improve your creative problem solving skills. Why this is, however, remains a mystery. Other questions revolve around the usefulness of communicating via sarcasm. Did it develop as a means of doling out gentle or veiled insults; or as an intentionally hurtful brand of criticism?


And for as well-honed as our sarcasm-detectors typically are, our understanding of how it manages to parse out snark from sincerity is limited. We know, for example, that conditions like autism and schizophrenia can hamper a person's ability to perceive sarcasm, but the mechanisms behind this disruption remain unclear.

Over at Smithsonian magazine, Richard Chin has explored the ins and outs of sarcasm use and detection in a really interesting piece (and I mean that sincerely) on the science of sarcasm. One section of the article you all might find particularly interesting muses on the evolution of sarcasm in the anonymizing realm of the internet:

Among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University. This may be because it's safer to risk some biting humor with someone you're never going to meet. He also noted that conversations typed on a computer take more time than a face to face discussion. People may use that extra time to construct more complicated ironic statements.

So? I'm just dying to hear what you all think. Really.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

You just used 345 words to tell us that nobody knows how sarcasm works. That's REALLY helpful. Thanks.