Courtesy of the BBC -- the ever-so-trustworthy folks who previously brought you the telepathic parrot -- a story on a study published in the journal Neuropsychology, demonstrating how damage to various brain regions correlates with an inability to grasp sarcasm. Isn't that special?
The ability to grasp sarcasm was tested by reading people stories like so (there were 8 kinds; this is the only one presented in the full paper):
A Sarcastic Version Item
Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest.
His boss noticed his behavior and said, “Joe, don’t work too hard!”
A Neutral Version Item
Joe came to work and immediately began to work. His boss noticed his
behavior and said, “Joe, don’t work too hard!”
They would then be asked two questions:
1. A factual question (assessing story comprehension): Did Joe work
2. An attitude question (assessing comprehension of the true meaning
of the speaker): Did the manager believe Joe was working hard?
The paper indicates that the sarcastic stories were read only with a "sarcastic intonation", and the other stories with a "neutral intonation". That raises red flags for SC, who is reasonably sure that people exist who say sarcastic things all the time without always giving blatantly exaggerated phonetic cues ([yoo-hoo, over here! -- ed.]). In fairness, the questions would seem to screen out people who simply can't figure out what's going on -- sarcasm errors were only counted when subjects answered question #1 correctly -- but still, there's more to sarcasm than a snide and flippant intonation. Or a simple mismatch of facts and utterances ([you'd know, wouldn't you? -- ed.]). But who said anything about being fair?
The authors are aware of this problem, and also conducted tests on their subjects' ability to recognize when someone has commited a verbal faux pas, and what a speaker's emotional affect (happy, sad, angry, etc.) is. The working hypothesis here is that people who have a hard time recognizing sarcasm probably have a hard time constructing theories of other people's minds (the researchers use the acronym ToM), which is held by some researchers to be the basis of autism. The figures obtained by these tests suggest that it's at least part of the story:
The relationships between sarcasm and social cognition (ToM, affect recognition) were examined with a correlation analysis. To examine the pattern of correlations between sarcasm scores and the performance in the facial expression and affective prosody tasks, we averaged the two variables into one variable that reflected performance in affective processing. For the entire sample, comprehension of sarcasm correlated moderately but significantly with the Faux Pas scores (r =.247, p = .039) and affective processing (r = .307, p = .011). No significant correlations were found when the different emotions (i.e., anger, happiness) were analyzed separately.
Your host hesitates to embrace the underlying suggestion of the paper, namely the idea that people who don't get sarcasm must somehow be brain-damaged. Not all clueless people actually have brain lesions (or at least, no study exists to prove that they do). An autism activist quoted at the end of the piece seems concerned that people will read about this and think of autistic people as brain-damaged -- which seems like an odd complaint given the symptoms of autism, although perhaps their concern is merely to reject further stigma. But the paper seems pretty sound on its basic finding, which is that there are different brain regions involved in recognizing propositional and emotional content, then integrating the two.
If you could care less, and therefore presumably want to read more, the Neuropsychology article can be found here. If you couldn't care less, stop here. If you're undecided about whether or not those two phrases mean the same thing, read Mark Liberman's thoughts on the matter. Or don't.