Sarcastic comments tend to lace conversations between friends and partners, but for some, identifying what’s real can be difficult. In a new experiment conducted at McGill’s School of Communication Disorders, researchers Kathrin Rothermich and Marc Pell tested to see how well different people could recognize white lies, teasing, and sarcasm. Their study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, reveals men, along with those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or autism spectrum disorders, struggle to identify non-literal speech.

"We tend to believe that people tell the truth most of the time," Rothermich said in a press release. "So sarcasm and white lies seem to go against a basic understanding of what 'should' be happening in conversation. This may be part of what makes them so difficult to recognize for some."

For the study, researchers produced 926 videos featuring short, scripted scenes with actors interacting in different relationships, such as romantic partners, friends, colleagues, or as a boss and employee. In each scenario, the actors were asked to convey sincerity, sarcasm, white lies, or teasing into the interaction. Next, a group of participants were asked to watch the videos and identify the social interactions and the actor’s intentions. They also reported which vocal and facial cues helped them identify the social motive.

"We discovered that the actors found it hardest to perform the scripts where they were being asked to tease one another," Rothermich said. "This may be because teasing doesn't always fit easily or logically into a conversation. One of the things that some actors did was to speak with exaggerated or fake accents when they were teasing."

Participants who were suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, and men in particular, had a difficult time identifying the actors’ intentions. The videos may be used in future clinical testing as a tool to identify symptoms of neurological disease and social disorders.

Sarcasm was the biggest struggle for such groups. Psychologists have gone as far as saying sarcasm needs to be cut in order to improve relationships with friends and loved ones. According to Psychology Today, people who receive sarcastic comments may feel put down, especially if they struggle to identify when it’s humor or if it’s real. It can be intended to demonstrate a sense of humor, but push it too far and it becomes hurtful or just simply annoying.

Source: Rothermich K and Pell MD. Introducing RISC: A New Video Inventory for Testing Social Perception. PLOS ONE. 2015.