Melanie Glenwright’s research is really fascinating. No, really.
Glenwright, department of psychology, is exploring sarcasm and irony, and children’s ability to grasp these important aspects of everyday communication. Or, to be more precise, children’s inability.
“Sarcasm is something that we don’t ‘get’ until a certain point in our childhood stage of development, late in our primary years,” says Glenwright.
Glenwright, who has spent six years making sarcastic comments around kids, has found that children tend to be literal thinkers and their ability to perceive and process sarcasm is developed over time.
Of course, Glenwright doesn’t stand around the schoolyard trying to elicit laughs with her sarcastic wit. Her research is conducted using puppets who employ sarcasm in conversation with each other while children, aged 6 to 10, observe. Kids are then asked about the meaning and intent behind the puppets’ words.
“Kids detect sarcasm at about age 6, but don’t begin to see the intended humour until around age 10,” she explains.
But Glenwright’s work doesn’t stop at pinpointing which ages can identify sarcasm. Her research, much of which is done in collaboration with University of Calgary colleague Penny Pexman, sets out to answer specific questions, such as: Why do children have difficulty seeing the humour intended in sarcasm? And, what cognitive mechanisms and social experiences are necessary for children to understand sarcasm?
Although adults don’t think twice about why they are laughing at a sarcastic quip made by a character in a popular sitcom such as Friends, Glenwright says that the process by which we interpret and respond to sarcasm is actually quite complex.
It works something like this: when we encounter sarcasm we first process the literal meaning of the words being spoken, then we suppress an urge to respond to that literal meaning, then we look for the true intent of the words based on facial expressions, intonation and familiarity with the person speaking the words. At that point, we’ve recognized sarcasm and can respond accordingly, often with laughter or an icy stare.
Kids, on the other hand, are left wondering what the joke is.
“Younger kids think slapstick is funny, and plays on words. But not sarcasm,” says Glenwright, adding that kids often perceive sarcasm to be mean-spirited.
Glenwright’s current research involves children aged 11 and 12. Since puppets would surely induce sarcastic jibes by the older kids, Glenwright instead shows clips from youth-oriented television programs such as Hannah Montana and asks her subjects to comment on the use of sarcasm in humour.
Glenwright will also explore how children of different cultures and children with autism respond to sarcasm.
Glenwright says her research could be a boon to educators, as it helps shed light on the origins of teasing, which can turn into bullying at later stages of child development.
“Healthy classroom discussions about sarcasm could be beneficial for kids,” she says.