Written to the song: Signs — Drake

“Sarcasm is like cheap wine — it leaves a terrible aftertaste” — Dana Perino

Valparaiso, Chile.

It had to have been from the show “8 Simple Rules” where the dad claimed that his daughters Bridget and Kerry are fluent in both English and sarcasm. What is the linguistic theory, scientific background, and relevance behind sarcasm, and how do individuals respond to it?

Individuals use sarcasm as “indirect negation”, where the speaker says something but implies the opposite (McDonald, 1999). These utterances are used for humorous purposes, as perceived politeness, and in a state of affection. Sarcasm is seen as “non-threatening” and can convey both the speaker’s disapproval and attitude toward a person or situation. The underlying process of sarcasm is based on the speaker hearing a sarcastic message and entering a state of confusion, where the tone or message does not match “truthful facts”. The listener refers to the conversation’s context to infer on the meaning and background behind the speaker’s sarcastic comment.

Another experiment analyzed individuals’ reactions to sarcasm, titled: “On the Psycholinguistics of Sarcasm” (Gibbs, 1986). The experiments tested an individuals ability to react to sarcasm before they process the non-direct meaning of the sarcastic comment. For example, responding to the comment “I love your shirt”, when in reality the person was sarcastic about the comment and didn’t approve of the shirt. As well, memory was tested to determine whether participants were able to remember genuine comments or sarcastic comments more vividly. The results showed that individuals are more likely to remember sarcastic comments if they have a strong knowledge of cultural norms, and are addressed directly — undermining their beliefs, rather than assuming a misunderstanding. I believe this is the “shock” factor, as individuals tend to remember more if they are touched emotionally or surprised.

Sarcasm stimulates the conceptual problem-solving and emotional areas of the brain. To understand the complexity of sarcasm on the brain, brain-injury and right hemisphere dysfunction patients, were analyzed and compared to healthy speakers. Brain injured patients struggled to comprehend speech beyond the literal form. Similarly, right hemisphere patients struggle with integrating and synthesizing information. While they can recognize factual information, they cannot comprehend sarcasm. Sarcasm poses difficulties for brain-injured patients, proving that sarcasm is a much more complex cognitive and linguistic process than many believe.


Gibbs, R. W. “On the Psycholinguistics of Sarcasm,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 115 (1986) 3–15.

McDonald, S. “Exploring the Process of Inference Generation in Sarcasm: A Review of Normal and Clinical Studies,” Brain and Language 68 (1999) 486–506.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

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