Sunday, November 20, 2011

The science of sarcasm

From the Smithsonian:
In an episode of “The Simpsons,” mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector.

“Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention,” says another character, the Comic Book Guy, causing the machine to explode.

The funny thing is that, later in the story, you learn that scientists really have developed a sarcasm detector:
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.”

Now that really would be a useful invention. Yeah, right.

I'm sure you can't wait, huh?

Meanwhile, you'll be glad to learn that sarcasm is good for you:
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.

That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry.

You see? I'm actually doing you a favor here. And yes, like all good things, sarcasm is more prevalent online:
We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, Pexman says. “There does seem to be truth to the old adage that you tend to tease the ones you love,” she says.

But among strangers, sarcasm use soars if the conversation is via an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face, according to a study by Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University. This may be because it’s safer to risk some biting humor with someone you’re never going to meet. He also noted that conversations typed on a computer take more time than a face to face discussion. People may use that extra time to construct more complicated ironic statements.

Now, I suppose you expect me to end this with a complicated ironic statement, huh?

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