Scientific American reports on the psychology of sarcasm and on new studies that suggest irony is hardwired into our brains:
In one experiment, [Penny M. Pexman of the University of Calgary in Alberta] trained kids to associate niceness with a smiling yellow duck and meanness with a snarling gray shark. Then they watched puppet shows, in which the puppets made both sarcastic and literal remarks. Rather than asking the [five- to 10-year-old] kids to interpret the remarks, she tracked their eye gaze, to see whether they shifted their attention ever so slightly toward the shark or the duck after a particular remark.
The results, reported in the August issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, were intriguing. If kids were indeed processing every sentence as literally true to begin with, then their eyes would reveal that. That is, they would look automatically at the duck on hearing “Well, that’s just great.” But they did not. When that sentence was used ironically, their eyes went immediately to the mean shark. The irony required no laborious cognitive crunching. They processed the insincerity as rapidly as they processed the basic meaning of the words.
So ironic sensibility appears to be hardwired into the neurons….
More interesting to me is the way different kinds of irony are processed. It’s the mean kind we come to naturally:
She found that although even those as young as six years understand ironic criticism, they do not seem to “get” ironic praise. For example, if a young child misses a soccer goal, he has no trouble knowing that “Hey, nice shot” is insincere and mean-spirited. But if he scores a difficult shot and a teammate yells, “Hey, lousy shot, man,” that is a lot harder to process. It does not compute automatically. In other words, children appreciate hurtful irony but not cheerful irony.