SARCASM: The Interesting Branch of Psychology

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 0 comments

First you have to know what is sarcasm?
Sarcasm is a large component of social interaction and conversation.  To demonstrate a sense of humor, people frequently use sarcasm as a means of “breaking the ice” during initial encounters with others.  People also use sarcasm as a means of being comedic with groups of friends.  They say something contrary to what they feel and/or believe for the purpose of being funny.  Sarcasm, in these instances, seems harmless and playful.  But is it really?  Too much sarcasm is annoying and hurtful, but can even a minimal amount be too much?  Why would people joke around by saying the absolute opposite of what they mean?  Would not that cause unnecessary confusion and frustration?  There are also people who say sarcasm should not even be used as a means of being funny because one can never be certain how serious the sarcastic person is.  How does sarcasm affect inter- and cross-gender relationships?  Do males make sarcastic remarks more than females or do both genders use this means of communication with the same frequency?  Individuals have different experiences, but generally speaking, do both sexes experience sarcasm the same way?


Sarcasm is an indirect form of speech intentionally used to produce a particular dramatic effect on the listener (McDonald, 1999, p. 486).  Researchers Maggie Toplak and Albert N. Katz make a similar statement in their article “On the Uses of Sarcastic Irony”:  “It is reasonable to assume that pragmatic insincerity is employed by a speaker to have some effect on a listener that would differ from the direct presumably more sincere form, and, conversely, that listeners…would be aware of the effect intended by the speaker.”  Similarly, in his book Talk is Cheap, John Haiman makes the following affirmation: “What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression….” (20). Some people even consider sarcasm to be a male-dominated form of communication used mostly among peers (Noble, 1977).

Many people relate sarcasm to irony, but there is a big difference between the two.  According to John Haiman, a person may use irony unintentionally and unconsciously (Haiman 20).  Situations can also be ironic (20).  However, sarcasm must be intentional and conscious (20).  Whoever makes a sarcastic comment knows that they are saying something contrary to what they actually believe, or how they actually feel.  In addition, situations cannot be sarcastic, whereas people can (20).

 The subject of sarcasm is complex because many factors are involved.  The following stimuli affect the presence, or degree, of sarcasm in everyday language:  exaggeration, nature of the speaker, relationship of speaker to victim, severity of the criticism, and whether or not the criticism is being made in private or in front of an audience (Toplak, 2000, 1483).  However, there is one basic factor regarding sarcasm:  It is “a form of ironic speech commonly used to convey implicit criticism with a particular victim as its target” (McDonald, 1999, 486-87).  Whether someone claims to be “just kidding” or whether that person’s intention is to express dismay, there is always a victim (when the object of the sarcastic comment is a person).

            Negative sarcasm, where positively worded utterances convey negative attitudes, is used frequently in everyday language.  For example, one may say “I love James; that jerk slammed the door in my face even though he saw me walking behind him.”  James’ actions would normally not be loved by anyone.  However, one may use the word “love” to express their disapproval of him and his actions.  Once again, this is a play on words.

Sarcastic remarks, like this, are usually accompanied by exaggeration, and intensifiers may be used on the words that state the opposite of how one truly feels.  For example, in the situation with James, one might put a vocal stress on the word love, resulting in “I looove James.”  Lori Ducharme supports this statement in her article “Sarcasm and Interactional Politics”.

Sarcasm was recognized by the intonation of voice as well as by the physical gestures of the sarcaster….In a sarcastic statement, a speaker utters words which are directly opposite to his/her intended meaning, but a vocal emphasis on these words (often accompanied by facial gestures such as a smirk, shaking of the head, or rolling of the eyes) indicates that they are not to be interpreted literally.

            Sarcasm has been found to be “morphologically simpler and more flexible to use than direct forms” (McDonald, 1999, 487).  It tends to be a more efficient way of conveying emotion or thought.  Some people also view sarcasm as a less aggressive form of stating what is truly on one’s mind (487).  Sarcasm also gives the speaker an opportunity to be dramatic and use wordplay that is more interesting than straightforward remarks.

While sarcasm may be a polite version of criticism, it is a form of criticism that is usually accompanied by particular negative attitudes, such as disapproval, contempt, scorn, and ridicule (487).  “Some have argued that an effect of ironic criticism is to dilute condemnation, relative to the more direct form….whereas others have demonstrated that sometimes ironic criticism is used for the complete opposite reason, namely to enhance condemnation” (Toplak, 2000).  Whether a person’s intent will be to lessen or increase the impact of criticism is dependent on the perspective of the speaker.  From the listener’s point of view, after a sarcastic remark has been made, a process of decoding and interpretation must take place in order to understand what has been said.  There are different theories as to what the listener experiences after hearing a sarcastic remark.

            Grice’s traditional model assumes that the listener hears the literal meaning of the statement, realizes that the meaning unexpectedly contrasts with known facts, and replaces the literal meaning with a nonliteral one, based on conversational inference (McDonald, 1999, 488).  Basically, the listener is substituting definitions.  One flaw with this model is that it does not take into account the speaker’s intent behind the sarcasm.  For example, by saying ‘A lovely day for a picnic indeed’ (on a rainy day) “the speaker is not simply asserting that it is not a lovely day for a picnic, but may be deriding the listener’s judgment, blaming him for ruining the day, suggesting they should never have set out, and so on” (McDonald, 1999).  According to the traditional model, the speaker could be ridiculing the listener and the listener would not even realize it because he/she would be using his/her own substitution to define the comment.

            Toplak and Katz conducted a study to examine the reasons why people use sarcasm 
when being critical of others.  Their aim was to see whether the reasons for using sarcasm varied from different points of view (Toplak, 2000, p.1470).  They used eighty-eight undergraduates, twenty-four males and sixty-four females, from the University of Western Ontario.  The students were given literature to read featuring sarcastic remarks and direct criticisms.  The four points of view studied were that of the speaker, the listener, an incidental overhearer, and a control no-perspective individual.  The results showed that relative to a direct criticism, the “person who utters an indirect, sarcastic statement is perceived as intending to be more offensive, verbally aggressive, anger-provoking, and mocking.  The sarcastic message is also perceived as more insincere, humorous, impolite, non-instructional, and conveying a somewhat unclear message” (1470-71).  The speaker was also seen as being smug.  Basically, sarcasm was perceived negatively, as a means of verbal aggression.  However, from the perspective of the speaker, the sarcasm was seen more positively than to the people in the other points of view (1474).  This makes sense.  It is no surprise that the speaker would view his comments as less caustic.  He may believe that what he is saying is not as bad as others make it out to be.  

            A second study, with the same set-up, was performed; this time focusing on the relationships between speaker and listener (1476).  Through active imagination, those who took the role of speaker thought sarcasm would have a negative effect on the relationship with the listener/victim (1479).  When asked, those in the speaker and listener roles did not see the use of negative comments as indicatives of close relationships, whereas those in the spectator points of view thought negative comments indicated close relationships (1479).  Maybe the spectators thought this way because they assumed that people would feel more comfortable making all kinds of remarks, negative and positive, to people they had close ties with.  Maybe people in close relationships had reached a level where criticism is okay, and sometimes expected.   From the perspectives of speaker and listener, maybe they felt the discomfort of using sarcasm and could not imagine people in close relationships using such a harsh way of expressing their opinions.   

            At the end of the studies, Toplak and Katz concluded that point of view is not a factor in the reasoning behind why a person uses sarcasm (1482).  All points of view in the studies showed that the fundamental factor of sarcasm is this:  “With speaker intent in mind [from all points of view] sarcasm is used as a means of verbal aggression; with victim’s reactions in mind, sarcasm is taken as a more severe form of criticism than found when criticism is directly expressed”  (1482).

            Reaction-time studies have been done to show how long it takes sarcastic and literal comments to be processed.  Some studies have found that it takes longer for sarcastic comments to be processed as opposed to their literal counterparts (McDonald, 1999, 489).  In addition, sarcastic remarks also require additional cognitive processing (500).  The brain has to do more work in figuring out the metamessages.  If a speaker wants to get a certain message across but uses sarcasm as the means to do it, there is always a possibility that the listener will not interpret the comment as the speaker intends.  Yes, sarcasm may be a more interesting means of making a statement.  It may be more dramatic and less boring, but it will be inefficient if the speaker’s desired reaction does not occur.  Sarcasm will be inefficient if the listener acquires feelings of ill will even though the speaker’s intention was to be non-caustic and funny.  Sarcasm will also be inefficient if the listener takes the remark humorously although the speaker intends it to be serious and derisive.  If there is a great likelihood of misunderstanding and hurt feelings, making conversation exciting and interesting does not seem to be a good enough reason to make sarcastic comments.  Direct comments, even though may result in hurt feelings, are straightforward and will hardly cause people to guess the speaker’s intentions for making the comment.
            According to Lori Ducharme, sarcastic transactions may take six forms:  social control, declaration of allegiance, establishing social solidarity and social distance, venting frustration, and humorous aggression (57).  Social control:  Sarcasm is used as a control mechanism to reprimand members of a particular group when inappropriate or undesired behavior is displayed (53).  For example, saying “Great job” to a member of a baseball team who strikes out for the second time in a row.  Declaration of allegiance: Sarcasm can be self-directed (55).  A person reprimands him-/herself for unacceptable behavior.  For example, telling oneself  “You are such a genius” after realizing an error made on an exam.  Solidarity and social distance:  Sarcasm is directed at outsiders of a particular group, affirming the “you are not good enough to be part of our group” mentality (56).  This sarcasm takes place when others do not fit a group’s expectations of what is acceptable.  For example, a group of girls sitting at a table may comment on another girl that passes by saying, “She is the most beautiful creature on this planet.  Just look at her zit-infested face.”  Venting frustration:  Sarcasm can express disapproval with a situation or object that does not uphold the standards of an individual (56).  For example, saying “These are the best seats in the house” at a movie theater where one’s seat is at the back of the theatre behind someone wearing a top hat.  Humorous aggression:  Sarcasm can be used to be funny and expresses wit by stating the opposite of a fact or belief shared by group members (57).  For example, by saying “Pat isn’t as smart as you all think he is, he’s only valedictorian because he bribed college students to do his work for him” may be someone’s attempt at joking about a valedictorian’s intelligence and ability to graduate at the head of his/her class.  (Sarcasm under this category can be used to describe a person, event, situation, etc.).

Social control, social solidarity, and declaration of allegiance are politically motivated sarcastic remarks (59).  Their purpose is functional: to maintain group boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior.  Venting frustration and humorous aggression are expressive in nature (59).  They may convey a sense of exasperation with a person or situation, but neither is concerned with defining group boundaries and adhering to acceptable behavior (59).  It seems that people nowadays tend to use the expressive forms of sarcasm more than the political forms in conversation.

Having observed many conversations and social situations, it seems that many people view sarcasm as a type of humor, with nothing about the statement being serious or truthful.   According to these people, sarcasm would be in a subcategory of humor.  On the other hand, other people find sarcasm to be very serious, even if the implications are humorous.  To these people, sarcasm is too vague and should not be used as a form of communication.  There is too much room for misunderstanding and hurt feelings.  According to Lori Ducharme,
Sarcasm and humor are two forms of problematic yet functional         communication which have received the recent attention of sociologists….Some distinguish sarcasm and humor on the basis of their perceived positive and negative qualities…humor is affiliative, while sarcasm is often a source of estrangement…Others imply that sarcasm is…a subtype of humor, emphasizing their structural similarities: both sarcasm and humor are situationally and contextually oriented…both rely on shared sets of meanings between speaker and audience…and both make use of dual (and incompatible) interpretations of those shared meanings…. 

            People have different views of sarcasm in relation to humor.  There is no written code stating whether sarcasm is a positive or negative thing.  However, one can make an assumption as to how sarcasm is generally perceived by studying contexts and the general public’s experiences with and beliefs on the matter. 

            A study was conducted on the University of Pennsylvania campus in order to gain insight on people’s experiences with and perspectives about sarcasm, particularly in male-female, male-male, and female-female relationships.  Thirty people were surveyed, fifteen males and fifteen females.  Most were freshmen residents of Hill College House.  There were two parts to the study.  The first part consisted of a 10-question survey about sarcasm and gender experiences. The second part of the study consisted of a role-play.  The role-play was comprised of two characters, 1 and 2.  Participants were asked to read the role of character 1, the victim.  The survey conductor (me) read the part of character 2, the sarcastic person.  Before reading their parts, the participants were asked to keep a mental note of character 2’s responses to character 1 and their own personal reactions.  (The intent of character 2’s comments was for humorous purposes, not derision).  After the role-play was performed, the participants were given a questionnaire to fill out regarding the role-play experience, along with other questions. gives the only interesting topics of psychology and you need not to be a professional to understand the articles in the psychtronics. They are easy to understand to every one and it is mainly for the college students and Psychiatrists.
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