Examining the emotional impact of verbal irony

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Psychology

Abstract

People often use ironic language in everyday conversation. For example, if someone does something stupid, their friend may make the comment "That was clever!", which on the surface of it, is the opposite of what they mean. Understanding ironic comments can be more difficult than if the person had spoken directly, by saying for example, "That was stupid!". Thus, given the risk of misunderstanding, if people choose to use ironic language, it seems likely that they want it to serve some other function that would not be achieved by speaking directly, such as eliciting a particular emotional response in the recipient.
In this project, we aim to investigate the emotional impact of verbal irony using a number of techniques which can tell us about the person's immediate emotional response as they are reading or listening to ironic comments. Some theorists propose that the function of irony is to mute the emotional force of a comment, for example, to make a criticism seem less harsh, whereas others argue that it may increase the feeling of condemnation felt by the recipient. Thus, it is currently unclear whether irony enhances or mutes the emotional force of an utterance. Little is also known about which factors can affect this process, and exactly which emotions are involved.
To address these issues, in Experiment 1, we will examine whether people's emotional responses to being criticised or praised are heightened, or reduced, by the comment being delivered ironically rather than directly. We will also examine whether emotional responses are influenced by whether the ironic comment is directed at the participant themselves, or at another person. We will do this by measuring people's electrical skin conductance response, which is a direct indicator of emotional arousal, while they are listening to spoken ironies. In Experiment 2, we will use the same technique to examine people's emotional responses to written irony. We will also assess how these responses are affected by commonly used devices such as emoticons.
In Experiments 3 and 4 we wish to examine in more detail precisely which emotions are elicited by the use of irony. In Experiment 3, we will look at whether people expect characters in a story to find ironic comments more amusing than direct comments. We will again look at both written and spoken irony. In Experiment 3a, we will record people's eye movements while they are reading conversations between characters, to examine whether they expect the recipient of an ironic comment to be amused, compared to when the same message is delivered literally. We would expect to observe more disruption to eye movements during reading in cases where the character's described emotional response to the comment does not match with the reader's expectations. We will also look at whether this expectation for amusement differs depending on whether the participant takes the perspective of the person delivering the comment, or the person who is receiving it. In Experiment 3b, we will examine people's electrical brain activity while they are listening to spoken irony. This will tell us whether expectations for particular emotional responses differ across written and spoken irony, where different cues are involved (e.g., tone of voice).
In Experiment 4, in contrast to amusement, we will examine whether people expect characters to be more upset by ironic comments than direct comments. Again, we will look at both written (Experiment 4a) and spoken (Experiment 4b) irony, and will examine whether results differ depending on whether the participant takes the perspective of the speaker or the recipient of the ironic comment.
Our findings will help us to develop theories to explain emotional processes relating to using irony. These theoretical advances could inform the use of irony to communicate in professional settings, and aid understanding of conditions in which irony comprehension is impaired (e.g., autism and schizophrenia).

Planned Impact

This research will further our knowledge of how people understand irony, in particular, the emotional aspects of using this form of language. Although the proposed project is grounded in basic research in psychology, it clearly has the potential to have impact in more applied areas in which person perception and social functioning play an important role. In the short term, the proposed project would stimulate research undertaken by a wide range of associated researchers, principally those interested in language comprehension and social cognition. In the medium term, more comprehensive theoretical accounts of emotional processes involved in language comprehension are likely to be developed. In the long term, our understanding of these processes may feed into other fields with direct social and economic impact. Specifically, it is likely that a number of user groups will ultimately benefit from this research; from clinical and educational psychologists interested in developing remedial techniques for conditions where figurative language comprehension is impaired, to practitioners interested in effective ways of delivering criticism and praise in professional settings.

Clinical and educational psychologists
Studying how people understand figurative language can contribute to our understanding of situations where this process breaks down, such as autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, a number of recent articles have highlighted the fact that people with conditions which lead to impaired social cognition also tend to have problems comprehending certain kinds of figurative language, such as metaphor and irony (see e.g., Solomon et al., 2011 as an example of recent research showing deficits in irony comprehension for participants with autism and schizophrenia). Given the very common use of figurative language in everyday communication, deficits in understanding this kind of language can present significant challenges to these populations. Building our knowledge of how figurative language is processed in non-clinical populations can feed in to the development of techniques to remediate these deficits. For instance, very recent research has highlighted ways in which this knowledge can be used to help children with autism to understand metaphors (e.g., Persicke, Tarbox, Ranick, & St. Clair, 2012). Thus, adding to the knowledge base involved in understanding how people comprehend irony could be used in a similar fashion by clinicians and educational psychologists.

Professional communication
The outcomes of this research would be relevant to practitioners interested in professional communication. Specifically, the emotional impact of using irony vs. literal language to convey criticism or praise, and the impact that this has on both the recipient, as well as other members of the team, is likely to be of interest in management and team building situations. In addition, corpus studies have shown that ironic utterances in text are often accompanied by emoticons (see Burgers, van Mulken, & Schellens, 2012, for an overview). Gaining a better understanding of how emoticons influence the emotional impact of a message has clear implications for guidance on their effective use (e.g., in email).

Research staff
The research assistant employed on the project will benefit from receiving training in a broad range of cutting edge research methodologies in Experimental Psychology, Psychophysiology, and Cognitive Neuroscience, as well as gaining the opportunity to develop a publication record, which would provide an excellent basis for a research career. In addition to these specific skills, they will gain experience in more general transferable skills such as written and verbal communication which are valued in a wide range of employment sectors.

Publications

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?urcan A (2016) An eye-tracking investigation of written sarcasm comprehension: The roles of familiarity and context. in Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition

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Filik R (2016) Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

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Filik R (2014) Irony and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact in Proceedings of AMLaP XX

 
Description ES/L000121/1 - Examining the emotional impact of verbal irony.

The main aim of this project was to investigate factors affecting the emotional impact of using ironic language. More specific objectives were to examine both ironic criticism and praise, to investigate the influence of emoticons, to look at specific emotional responses (such as amusement), as well as whether these responses are influenced by the perspective that is taken by the participant. Our research successfully met these objectives, revealing the following key findings:

Key finding 1: Emotional impact.

Theorists agree that irony serves some communicative function that would not be achieved by speaking directly, such as eliciting a particular emotional response. Results from rating studies with both text-based (Filik et al., 2016) and video-based stimuli (Pickering et al., 2018) showed that ironic criticism was judged as less negative than literal criticism, and ironic praise as less positive than literal praise, suggesting that irony serves to mute emotional impact. In contrast, more immediate emotional responses to irony were found to be enhanced compared to those for literal language (Filik et al., 2015). This apparent contradiction can be reconciled by eye-tracking data suggesting that sarcasm 'stings' initially, but is then later rationalised as being more amusing than literal criticism (Filik et al., 2017).

Key finding 2: Emoticons.

Devices such as emoticons often accompany irony in computer-mediated communication. Rating studies (Filik et al., 2016) showed that if the sarcastic meaning of a comment can be easily deduced from the context, adding a device (e.g., ;-), :-p, !, or ) will not aid comprehension. However, if the receiver cannot tell from the context whether the comment is intended sarcastically, using an emoticon may reduce misunderstanding.

In support of this, production studies (Thompson & Filik, 2016) showed that when participants were asked to produce a sarcastic message or modify an ambiguous message to clarify its meaning, emoticons (especially ;-) and :-p) were commonly used to indicate sarcastic intent.

Using psychophysiological measures to capture emotional responses showed higher emotional arousal accompanied by reduced frowning and enhanced smiling for messages with rather than without an emoticon, suggesting that emoticons increase positive emotions (Thompson et al., 2016).

Key finding 3: Perspective.

The emotional impact of criticism may be quite different depending on the perspective that is taken. Eye-tracking data (Filik et al., 2017) suggest that participants experience more difficulty processing an amused response to criticism when viewed from the perspective of the victim than the protagonist (see also Thompson et al., 2021, for similar findings from event-related brain potentials). When focus is on the victim, perceivers may concentrate more on the negative aspect of the comment, whereas when focus is on the perspective of the protagonist, they may consider the reasons behind the remark, and perceive it more positively.

Filik, R., Hunter, C. M., & Leuthold, H. (2015). When language gets emotional: Irony and the embodiment of affect in discourse. Acta Psychologica, 156, 114-125.

Filik, R., Brightman, E., Gathercole C., & Leuthold, H. (2017). The emotional impact of verbal irony: Eye-tracking evidence for a two-stage process. Journal of Memory and Language, 93, 193-202.

Filik, R., Turcan, A., Thompson, D., Harvey, N., Davies, H., & Turner, A. (2016). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 2130-2146.

Pickering, B., Thompson, D., & Filik, R. (2018). Examining the emotional impact of sarcasm using a virtual environment. Metaphor and Symbol, 33, 185-197.

Thompson, D., & Filik, R. (2016). Sarcasm in written communication: Emoticons are efficient markers of intention. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 21, 105-120.

Thompson, D., Leuthold, H., & Filik, R. (2021). Examining the influence of perspective and prosody on expected emotional responses to irony: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology (in press).

Thompson, D., Mackenzie, I. G., Leuthold, H., & Filik, R. (2016). Emotional responses to irony and emoticons in written language: Evidence from EDA and facial EMG. Psychophysiology, 53, 1054-1062.
Exploitation Route In the academic community, the current findings can be used to inform theories of language comprehension, specifically, those relating to the emotional impact of irony, or the influence of perspective.

Outside of the academic community, the current findings may be taken forward by those interested in effective professional communication (i.e., delivery of criticism and praise), and may be put to use more broadly by the general public interested in the effective use of emoticons. They may also be used to inform clinical practice in populations where the comprehension of irony may be impaired (e.g., autism and schizophrenia), again perhaps in relation to the effective use of devices such as emoticons in order to clarify the intent of a message.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare

URL https://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/Ruth.Filik/
 
Description This project is grounded in basic research in psychology, and in this respect the beneficiaries of the current research are principally academic. However, it clearly has the potential to have impact in more applied areas in which language comprehension, person perception, and social functioning play an important role. For instance, studying how people comprehend figurative language, which involves understanding the intentions and the behaviour of others can contribute to our understanding, and successful treatment of situations where this process breaks down, such as autism and thought disorders (e.g., schizophrenia). In addition, information regarding the emotional impact of using irony versus literal language to deliver criticism or praise, and the appropriate use of devices such as emoticons, would clearly be of interest in a number of practical domains, such as professional communication. The applicants appreciate that effective communication is an integral part of quality research in the social sciences. In the following, we outline the steps that have so far been taken to increase the likelihood of impacts, by engaging users and beneficiaries. Specifically, in order to disseminate our research to a wider audience, the applicants have carried out a number of activities: Project web page. As planned, to promote the aims and findings of the research to a wider audience, we have created a web page relating to the project, where we explain the purposes and results of the research in ways that are accessible to non-academic audiences. On this page, readers can also follow links to the open access publications that have arisen from the project. This information can be found under the 'projects' section of the following site: https://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/Ruth.Filik/ Communicating research through the British Psychological Society (BPS). We also planned to communicate our research to a more general Psychology audience through the BPS, to publicise the work to users with an interest in areas such as autism or schizophrenia. This was achieved through a podcast as part of the BPS research digest podcast series 'PsyCrunch'. Our research is described in Episode 6, 'How to be sarcastic', which can be found here: https://digest.bps.org.uk/podcast/ Communication to the general public via the media. Our research has also been communicated to the general public via a number of newspaper articles (in the Daily Mail Online and Independent newspapers), as well as through the Nottingham University Alumni newsletter. Research staff. The postdoctoral researcher employed on the project was able to gain a number of specific research-related skills (for example in the recording of psychophysiological data), as well as more transferable skills in relation to manuscript preparation and conference presentations, resulting in the further development of a strong publication record. Following this project, the researcher was able to secure a permanent academic position.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Other
 
Title Examining the emotional impact of verbal irony 
Description This dataset was created from the experimental data generated during the ESRC funded project "Examining the emotional impact of verbal irony", and was deposited in the UK Data Archive (and can be found here - http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-852385). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None to date (that the authors are aware of). 
URL http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-852385
 
Description Daily Mail Online 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Mail Online ran an article based on the following research paper (which is an output of the current grant):
Filik, R., Turcan, A., Thompson, D., Harvey, N., Davies, H., & Turner, A. (in press). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3388456/Oh-great-t-wait-Study-reveals-emoji-punctuati...
 
Description Independent Article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Independent newspaper ran an article based on the following research paper (which is an output of the current grant):
Filik, R., Turcan, A., Thompson, D., Harvey, N., Davies, H., & Turner, A. (in press). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-have-worked-out-how-punctuation-and-emoticons-c...
 
Description Nottingham University Alumni Newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The University of Nottingham Alumni Newsletter typically includes an article about research conducted by former students at the University. Dr. Ruth Filik (PI) did her undergraduate degree at Nottingham, and the newsletter ran a feature based on the following article (which is an outcome of the current grant):
Filik, R., Turcan, A., Thompson, D., Harvey, N., Davies, H., & Turner, A. (in press). Sarcasm and emoticons: Comprehension and emotional impact. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/alumni/newseventsandfeatures/news/news-items/2016-news/we-really-love-yo...