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Oh, How Wonderful! A Study on the Cognition of Verbal Irony

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Irony is commonplace in everyday conversation. When you get stuck in traffic and say to yourself, “Perfect!” we know that’s not what you really mean. But how exactly are we able to hear something and label it as literal or ironic? And when do we begin to develop this ability to detect verbal irony?

Previous studies suggest various explanations for how we are able to process irony. Some researchers suggest that we first consider the literal meaning of a sentence before moving on to consider irony, while others propose that we begin to process a statement as ironic as soon as we have evidence from cues such as tone of voice or facial expression to support it as such. In her experiment, psychologist Penny Pexman of the University of Calgary found that children as young as five were able to detect verbal irony.

To set up her study, the researcher had children of ages five to six associate kindness with a smiling yellow duck and cruelty with a snarling grey shark. The children then had to listen to different speakers and determine if they were saying something nice or mean by selecting either the duck or the shark. The children’s eye movements were also tracked during the experiment to show how verbal irony was processed.

The study, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, provided interesting results. Not only were children able to detect verbal irony at a very young age, but they were also able to process irony without first considering a more literal response. For example, when a literally kind sentence was said with ironic intent, the children would look at the shark instead of the duck.

“Irony understanding depends on complex social, emotional, and cognitive inferences that are made possible by a comprehension system that is capable of rapid coordination of this information and by knowledge of a broad range of interpretive possibilities,” the author concluded. While the complete explanation of irony is still incomplete, this study has still provided intriguing answers to this aspect of human nature.