Empathy could be the key to understanding sarcasm and irony, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada submit that children’s empathetic skills may determine the degree to which they grasp common disingenuous phrases like “Thanks a lot!” and “Nice going!” The findings shed new light on the development of complex cognitive processes like emotion recognition.

The study investigated sarcasm recognition in children ages 8 to 9 — an age associated with a nascent understanding of disingenuous remarks. The researchers theorized that such an understanding depends on the child’s empathetic capacity, as it essentially requires him or her to entertain the unspoken thought processes of someone else. To go beyond the declarative value of a sentence, the child must first determine how the speaker feels about what is being said.

To examine the relationship between sarcasm recognition and empathy, the researchers enrolled 31 children in an experiment. The young participants were first asked to watch a series of puppet shows that included multiple lines of sarcastic and genuine praise. They were then asked to indicate the nature of each line of praise by picking up a “mean” toy shark for sarcasm or a “nice” toy duck for sincerity.

The researchers also used a set of questionnaires to estimate the participants’ Empathy Quotient (EQ) and communication skills.

According to lead author Penny Pexman, greater empathy skills were associated with higher accuracy in the shark/duck task. Even when the participants did not raise the correct toy, eye movement and reaction time suggested that children with comparatively high EQ were consistently more sensitive to the speaker’s intent.

"This study helps us understand why some children deal better with this challenge than others and provides new insights about development of this complex aspect of emotion recognition," added Pexman. "It also puts us in a better position to help children who are struggling with this challenge."

Source: Nicholson A, Whalen J, Pexman P. Children’s processing of emotion in ironic language. Developmental Psychology, 2013.