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Psychos Don't Get Jokes: Empathy Crucial for Detecting Sarcasm

Update Date: Oct 08, 2013 04:28 PM EDT

People who don't get your sarcasm might just be psychopaths, a new study suggests.

A new study on children reveals that empathy is crucial for understanding irony. Researchers found that the children with better empathy skills have an easier time recognizing sarcasm.

Young children tend have a hard time understanding sarcasm. Children generally begin to recognize sarcasm between the ages of six and eight. Experts say this is especially true for familiar sarcastic praise like "Thanks a lot!" and "Nice going!" However, some children take a significantly longer time to get the hang of sarcastic jokes, with some having trouble even though adolescence.

Lead researcher Professor Penny Pexman and her team wanted to understand why. Pexman and her team hypothesized that children's differing abilities to gauge sarcasm might be explained by their differing abilities to empathize with others.

Researchers reasoned that children must be able to adopt the perspective of others or understand the speaker's attitude and emotions to understand sarcastic remarks.

Researchers recruited 31 children between aged 8 and 9 years old. The children completed tasks that required them to recognize sarcasm.

After watching a series of puppet shows that included either sarcastic or non-sarcastic praise, the children were asked to pick up either a "mean" toy shark or a "nice" duck. They were instructed to pick up the shark when they believed the puppets spoke sarcastically and the duck when the puppets were genuine.

Researchers measured the children's empathy skills separately.

The findings revealed that children detected sarcasm about half the time overall. Children with stronger empathy skills were nearly twice as accurate as children with poorer empathy skills.

The children's eye gaze and reaction time was also monitored during the sarcasm recognition task to measure subtle clues about their understanding.

"Sarcastic language, especially in unfamiliar forms, is a real challenge for most children," Pexman said in a news release. "Even when children did not recognize a remark as sarcastic, there was evidence in their reactions that the children with stronger empathy skills were sensitive to the speaker's intent."

"This study helps us understand why some children deal better with this challenge than others and provides new insights about development of this complex aspect of emotion recognition," Pexman explained.

"It also puts us in a better position to help children who are struggling with this challenge," she concluded.

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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