Sarcasm levels are ever-increasing in our modern world — perhaps a century from now, communications will contain more sarcastic expressions than sincere ones. So what is the value of being tongue-in-cheek? It involves more intelligence and creativity than straight-talk, and machines cannot (yet) understand or imitate it with complete accuracy. Thus irony may be our last and best weapon in the inevitable war against the robots. Smithsonian Magazine reveals:
For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance.
Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco.
Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.
There appear to be regional variations in sarcasm. A study that compared college students from upstate New York with students from near Memphis, Tennessee, found that the Northerners were more likely to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation.
There isn’t just one way to be sarcastic or a single sarcastic tone of voice. In his book, Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. Despite all these clues, detecting sarcasm can be difficult. There are a lot of things that can cause our sarcasm detectors to break down, scientists are finding. Conditions including autism, closed head injuries, brain lesions and schizophrenia can interfere with the ability to perceive sarcasm.
It turns out scientists can program a computer to recognize sarcasm. Last year, Hebrew University computer scientists in Jerusalem developed their “Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification.” The program was able to catch 77 percent of the sarcastic statements in Amazon purchaser comments like “Great for insomniacs” in a book review. The scientists say that a computer that could recognize sarcasm could do a better job of summarizing user opinions in product reviews.
The University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory announced in 2006 that their “automatic sarcasm recognizer,” a set of computer algorithms, was able to recognize sarcastic versions of “yeah, right” in recorded telephone conversations more than 80 percent of the time. The researchers suggest that a computerized phone operator that understands sarcasm can be programmed to “get” the joke with “synthetic laughter.”