Findings: A higher form of humour

March 21, 2003

Most children under ten years old do not fully understand sarcasm, according to a study that tried to pinpoint when we start to find the humour in saying the opposite of what we mean, writes Philip Fine.

University of Calgary psychologist Penny Pexman and graduate student Melanie Harris showed 64 children eight puppet scenarios. One of them was of a restaurant customer who ordered chicken wings but received salad instead. He tells the waiter: "You have a great memory."

Another was of a woman asking a store employee to help her carry her groceries. The employee trips and dumps the groceries. The woman blurts out: "You're so careful."

Although the average adult would have understood the inherent sarcastic humour, many children took the situations seriously. Dr Pexman said about half the five-year-olds in the study had no concept of sarcasm.

By age eight, almost all understood that the speaker was saying the opposite of what was meant. Very few, however, considered it humorous. The researchers' suspicions were that children of that age empathised with the person who had bungled.

The study confirmed earlier research that found children could start to understand the concept of sarcasm by age five, but did not start laughing about it until they reach the age of ten.

While researchers are not certain what determines sarcasm comprehension, the findings indicate that it is more than cognitive development and also takes in factors such as television exposure and parental use of sarcasm.

Dr Pexman has been studying sarcasm for a decade. This study focused on children because the researchers found there was a shortage of findings on childhood comprehension of sarcasm.

While it has often been said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, the researchers said that understanding that type of humour actually takes a more developed mind and it is a fairly sophisticated social cognitive achievement.

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