Twisted Tales: Unraveling the Surprising Benefits of Irony

Using irony is a common practice in everyday speech. What’s the main purpose of doing so? What skills are necessary to best understand irony? 

In this episode, Under the Cortex features Penny Pexman from Western University. The conversation with Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum raises questions about the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of verbal irony. According to Pexman’s research published in APS’s journal Current Directions, cognitive flexibility and emotion recognition are crucial aspects that underlie the processing of sarcastic speech. Despite its reputation of being a negative practice, verbal irony shapes social relationships and enhances cognitive skills. 

Unedited transcript

[00:00:08.330] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Do you use irony when you talk? Are you a big fan of witty banter? How do you feel about the use of irony in general? This is under the cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer-Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. In this episode, Under the Cortex explores the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of verbal irony, despite its reputation for having negative effects. I’m joined by Penny Pexman from Western University, who recently published an article on this topic in APS’s journal, Current Directions. Together we are going to talk about the unknown benefits of engaging in an ironic conversation. Penny, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:00:56.090] – Penny Pexman 

Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to get to talk to you today. 

[00:01:00.370] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Thanks. We are very excited about your article on irony, and let me start asking my questions. So irony is a widely used, though perhaps not universally adored, form of speech. What got you interested in taking a deeper look at irony? 

[00:01:19.370] – Penny Pexman 

I’ve been interested in irony, believe it or not, since I was a senior undergrad and I was choosing my honors thesis topic, and I met a professor called Albert Katz and he was interested in figurative language in general. And we started talking about irony and metaphor and other forms of figures. And what was particularly compelling to me about irony was the paradox. So the typical notions in communications are that you aim to be understood. You do your listener a favor and you try to make your message clear. And what is so striking to me still to this day about irony and about sarcasm is that people are deliberately insincere. So for some reason they say something quite different than what they actually mean. In some cases, they even say the opposite. And the notion that you would do this for communicative effect means there are some really compelling benefits to using this form of language. It must serve an important purpose, otherwise, why the heck would you ever speak this way? 

[00:02:31.440] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, let’s talk about that a little bit. So in what situations is irony particularly common? Where do we see it most in everyday life? How is irony cute? 

[00:02:43.830] – Penny Pexman 

So I would say one of the contexts in which you will tend to find more irony is in conversations between close people. So there’s that expression, you only tease the ones you love. And I think we tend to use irony and sarcasm with close others because they have insight into our real intentions and our mental states that provide a bit of a shortcut to the intent of our irony or our sarcasm. So some of it is closeness, but not entirely. Close relationships are one context where you tend to see slightly higher rates of irony. I think there are situations where it also tends to be more common. So we have a need as humans to comment on how things have gone. It’s something we do with friends and with strangers. So we say we might have expected good weather. It’s actually terrible weather, it’s raining. And we say great weather we’re having. And so there’s this need to comment on how things have gone. And I think also a human tendency to generally expect good outcomes. And so that leads to a lot of context where things haven’t gone as well as you expected. And you need to share that with the person you’re with or with people who are hearing a story about the event. 

[00:04:06.050] – Penny Pexman 

And so that need to comment on the fact that things haven’t gone as expected and may have gone worse than expected, that tends to be a situation that we respond to with irony. 

[00:04:18.450] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. So the thing you said about close relationships remind me of my brother and how much he teases me to this day. Which brings me to my next question. I think he trained me well. He’s an older brother. So what skills are necessary to best understand irony? 

[00:04:37.120] – Penny Pexman 

Well, it turns out there’s a lot of them, and I wish I could say it’s this one particular skill, but I actually believe there are a set of skills that you need which make it even more challenging. So one of the things you need is an ability to appreciate the mental states of other people. So, theory of mind mentalizing, mental state inferencing, that’s important because you need to know what the speaker actually believes when they’ve given you this example of verbal irony, because their words aren’t necessarily going to tell you. So you need some mental state inferencing, some cognitive flexibility, because you have to take the words the person offered you and turn them around and reinterpret motion recognition skills would be helpful. Vocabulary, working memory. So all of these skills have now been linked to irony. And it leads me to believe this is a skill that is actually quite impressive. So to have acquired all of those abilities and the social experience you need with irony in order to understand it, all of those things have to happen before you can recognize it and use it appropriately. 

[00:05:44.270] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So do you think there are any boundary conditions or perhaps cultures that may be more inclined to benefit from the use of irony? 

[00:05:52.710] – Penny Pexman 

As far as we know, irony is found in all languages, in all cultures. And so I’m always a bit reluctant to believe too strongly in cultural differences. There certainly are studies that have found them, but I think some of those differences might be explained by preferences for different forms. So there are different forms of irony. There are different attachments to context. So in one culture, perhaps it’s a certain context that gives rise to that speech form. In other contexts, it might be a different one. And the sense of humor, what we find funny, I think, is something that varies a bit across cultures and across contexts. So all of that to say, I think it’s essentially universal, but it varies, and it varies in ways that probably map onto some cultural differences. 

[00:06:41.710] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

And I noticed that you have done quite a bit of work to study how kids learn about and how to use irony. I’m a developmental researcher by training, so I’m quite interested in this question. Can you tell us a little bit about what you have found? 

[00:06:57.190] – Penny Pexman 

What we found is that most typically developing children will start to detect irony in a very basic way at around age five or six. So it’s quite late developing, and probably because of all those skills I was talking about. If you think about when theory of mind is fully achieved and you think about working memory skills, all those executive functions are going to need to be there to support this kind of comprehension. So it’s around age five or six that kids will first start to realize the speaker doesn’t actually mean what they’ve said, but it seems to take a few more years before children appreciate why you would talk that way and the social effects you’re trying to create. So the fact that you’re trying to be funny or you’re trying to tease that recognition seems to be a bit delayed from the initial detection of the speaker’s counterfactual intent. So it’s a slow emerging skill. It also is something we found is quite variable. So you can find a five year old who is really proficient in irony, and you can find an eight year old who is not. And yet, in every other way, they seem to be very typical, very adept children. 

[00:08:08.880] – Penny Pexman 

And so there’s clearly something else. And one of the things we’ve realized in some recent research is that you also need to know what irony and sarcasm is. You need a little bit of that kind of metapragmatic or metacognitive metal linguistic awareness about what irony is and why people use it. And so we’ve actually got into doing some training studies with kids and finding that a single training session where you learn about what irony is and why people use it and how it’s cued through tone of voice or facial expression or context incongruity, all of those, that kind of awareness of what it is and what people use it for is something that seems important in order that children have a mental category for that kind of speech and have a label to put on it and an answer to the riddle of why people would be talking in this peculiar way. 

[00:09:04.830] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. So this is again where my brother comes back to the conversation. So then I guess I was right when I said he trained me well. 

[00:09:14.850] – Penny Pexman 


[00:09:15.970] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

All right, I’ll make sure he listens to this episode. So let’s go back to the paper in general. So, to me, the goal of this paper was to begin to advocate for the more positive benefits of using irony. Can you talk a little bit about them and how they might work? 

[00:09:36.810] – Penny Pexman 

Yes. So this is something that my co author, Valeria Pfeifer, and I had noticed in some recent research was an emerging trend for perhaps more positive consequences of irony. It has tended to be a bit of a maligned speech form, so people associate it with negativity and toxic relationships. And we wanted to review and highlight some of this literature that suggests that it actually does seem to have some positive benefits. So one of the sets of studies we looked at was one that has looked at connections between irony and irony, comprehension in particular. So the act of understanding some irony and sarcasm, and how that might cue certain cognitive benefits, in particular, problem solving and creativity. So there are some studies now that have shown that if people listen to or read about some episodes where people are using irony and sarcasm, then do a creativity or a problem solving task, they tend to come up with more creative solutions. And that work is particularly interesting because it suggests that it’s actually the irony that is having that benefit. There’s other work that’s correlational and perhaps less compelling, but it does seem to be something about the act of resolving the irony and working through solving the irony and understanding what the speaker means. 

[00:11:10.180] – Penny Pexman 

That creates a little bit of openness to a creative solution or a divergent way of solving a problem. And so we need more work on it. But there are several studies now that have shown that there’s also work that suggests that irony could be a way of regulating emotions for a speaker, but also for someone who is on the receiving end of bad news or challenging news. And again, this work is in its infancy, so it’s a handful of papers, but it’s an interesting idea, this notion that to speak ironically requires a different flexibility and control of emotion than might be involved if one was to just deliver bad news or an insult directly, without that figuration, without creating irony in the process. And so there’s a certain distance that’s created when something is structured as an ironic remark, and speakers take advantage of that. So you probably had your brother, for instance, tease you ironically and then back away from it by saying, oh, I was just joking. So I think that distance is something that is appealing to many speakers, but I think there’s ways that could also be a positive tool. 

[00:12:29.970] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So you talked about these different type of skills that are related to irony. So given the types of skills required to fully understand and appreciate irony, do you think there is some responsibility on the part of the speaker to selectively choose the right times to use irony? What do you think? 

[00:12:53.030] – Penny Pexman 

No, I think that’s a valid suggestion. So I sometimes hear the other day I heard my neighbor using sarcasm with their dog, and I thought, there is, first of all, the dog’s not going to understand anything literal, and they’re definitely not going to understand anything ironic. So I think that tells you that it’s more for the speaker, right? The exercise of using irony was more for the benefit of the speaker. And it’s also an example of the fact that people use irony all the time in context where they don’t really think that the recipient is going to be able to understand. So I think it’s something that speakers should be aware of. If you want the, the recipient to understand you, then irony is something to use with caution and probably with skill. So to use it in a way that it’s well cued so that the recipient is getting lots of cues about what you mean. 

[00:13:53.850] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So you give three directions for the future of this research. In the paper, irony and social cognitive skills, irony in creative cognition, and irony in managing interpersonal communication. Is there one that you are particularly excited about pursuing? 

[00:14:12.290] – Penny Pexman 

I think for me, the irony in creative cognition, because there is this suggestion that it might be having a causal effect, but it’s something we know very little about yet. So the conditions that optimize that effect are things we need to study further. So I think I’m very interested in that causation, and in a way, it’s one of the questions that I would love to see answered about children as well. So we know that when children have advanced theory of mind skills and vocabulary and executive function, they tend to be more accurate, understanding irony. But one of the things I’ve wondered for a while and have not yet tested as well as I would like is whether exposure to irony has consequences for those theory of mind, executive function, and language skills. So I talk about it in this one direction, right? I talk about how you need all these skills to support irony comprehension. But I also wonder about how irony comprehension might help advance some of those cognitive and language skills that could potentially be beneficial in other contexts. 

[00:15:28.970] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

So this was a great conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to add? 

[00:15:35.770] – Penny Pexman 

I would say I’m quite excited about the training studies that we’ve been doing, and one of the things I did during the pandemic actually was to take some of our research and distill it into a storybook for kids about sarcasm and why we use it and how it’s understood. And it’s called Sydney gets sarcastic and it’s now been translated into 15 languages. It’s available as a free download as a PDF, and there’s a coloring version of it for kids. It’s intended for kids in the kind of four to seven year old range, but our lab website,, is the place where you can find the download and choose a language and print it off and help a child to understand sarcasm and irony. 

[00:16:26.570] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Thank you. And you already mentioned your website, but let me ask this question anyways. If listeners want to learn more about your work, where might they read more and or follow you? 

[00:16:38.590] – Penny Pexman 

Well, I’ve been a pretty loyal Twitter user until recently, but that’s definitely waning. I’m Penny Pexman on Twitter. I’m also Penny Pexman on Blue sky and easy to find because I don’t think there’s another Penny Pexman. 

[00:16:52.930] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, it is nice to have a unique name. I also have a unique name and I love yeah, yeah. Penny, thank you so much for joining us today. This was such a pleasure. I personally learned a lot. 

[00:17:06.120] – Penny Pexman 

Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m so glad you gave me the opportunity. 

[00:17:10.170] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer-Baum with APS and I have been speaking with Penny Pexman from Western University. If you want to know more about this research, visit 

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