The Surprising Science Of Sarcasm

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, June 16, 2015
portrait of a cute ethnic teenage girl in an orange tank top rolls her eyes playfully
“Sarcasm is not the rapier of wit its wielders seem to believe it to be, but merely a club: it may, by dint of brute force, occasionally raise bruises, but it never cuts or pierces.” —Rex Stout

In A Nutshell

How you process sarcasm can tell a lot about you. It’s the measure of social understanding, and failure to understand it can signal other problems, like potential damage to the prefrontal lobe of the brain. Sarcasm makes us think more, work harder, it sharpens the brain, and it’s also led to some interesting debates on the ethics of sarcastic scientific studies, like whether or not they do more damage than good in the long run.

The Whole Bushel

Sarcasm. We all use it, we’re occasionally infuriated by it, and we’re baffled when people don’t understand it. It turns out that it’s an incredibly complicated form of communication, and it’s told us a lot about how we communicate and how our brains work.

People with an overly sarcastic personality can be particularly grating, but sarcasm makes more than just an occasional appearance in our communication techniques. It’s so common that those who have difficulty picking up on it immediately stand out from the crowd as people who struggle with interpersonal relationships and communication. It’s becoming more and more important, says science, with a linguist at Macalester College in Minnesota stating that it’s the next stage of evolution for language.

Using it—and understanding it—has a measurable impact on how our brains work. When researchers monitored electrical activity in the brains of people who are exposed to sarcasm, they found that not only does activity increase, but our brains need to work harder to wrap themselves around the concept of sarcasm and to decide how a comment is actually meant.

And that’s been found to have some impressive consequences. An Israeli study on sarcasm found that students trying to solve problems did measurably better when complaints and issues were presented to them in a way that was sarcastic as opposed to one that was just angry.

The ways that it impacts the brain can be telling, too. The inability to understand sarcasm has been linked to brain damage—specifically, damage in a person’s prefrontal lobe. University of Haifa studies took volunteers with and without brain damage and monitored how they reacted to sarcastic statements. Those with healthy brains could pick up the sarcasm without a problem, and those with damage to other parts of the brain besides the prefrontal lobe also had no difficulties in understanding it. Researchers found that an inability to understand sarcasm had other effects, too. Not being able to understand whether or not a statement was meant literally produced behaviors that mirrored certain social behaviors that often go along with a diagnosis of autism.

There’s also a weird thing that happens when we look at when, where, and how often sarcasm is used. Talking to friends? It’s used a lot. Talking to strangers? Not so much. Talking to strangers online? Never used. (Just kidding—it’s used all the time.)

And that, says Cornell University, is saying a lot about our bravery when it comes to saying something that could be taken as pretty scathing—we’re more than happy to do it when there’s the protection of a computer between the one dishing out the sarcasm and the recipient.

But sarcasm online or in print might have some far-reaching consequences that we’re just learning about. Every year around Christmas, the British Medical Journal publishes an issue of hilarious, sarcasm-tinged studies. The studies are real, the data is real, but the premises are often very tongue-in-cheek. Recent examples include one paper on the power of prayer in healing, and another that says men die younger than women because they’re more likely to do stupid things.

The problem comes later, when the studies are filed on the Internet alongside all the other papers from the journal, when they’re searched, accessed, and read without the understanding that they were originally meant as part of an anthology of sarcastic science. The BBC picked up a spoof article on “sex, aggression, and humor: responses to unicycling,” and the same article has also been featured in books on the male brain. Fingers are being pointed at the scientific community not only for being rather elitist about the whole thing, but for creating a whole wealth of new information that’s likely to be taken out of context down the road and cited poorly, with others wanting to know just how ethical a practice sarcastic science is.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right
The Guardian: Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit
The Atlantic: The Ethics of Sarcastic Science