Why You’re Bad At Understanding Irony

The neuroscience of irony: It’s a lot more complicated than rain on your wedding day.

Why You’re Bad At Understanding Irony
[Image: Still from Alanis Morissette - Ironic video via Youtube]

Last summer, a spoof of Alanis Morissette’s song Ironic went viral after doing what the original did not: describing events that were actually ironic. Morissette famously flubbed the concept in her hit, largely singing about coincidence or bad timing rather than actual irony. The spoof corrected the problems; the “black fly in your chardonnay,” for instance, became a chardonnay “specifically purchased to repel black flies.”


In fairness to Alanis, pop singers and Canadians aren’t the only ones who struggle to understand irony. There’s an entire line of cognitive research dedicated to understanding the concept (as well as its complementary form, sarcasm). Such work not only grants insight into the complexities of language–namely, the gap between literal and intended meaning–but it might teach designers and creative types a thing or two about the power of indirect messages.

So let’s look at how the brain handles irony. Perhaps a stranger says, “Nice weather,” when you step out into the rain. Traditional scientific thinking holds that the brain takes longer to process this remark than it would a direct statement, such as, “Lousy weather.” First the brain registers the remark’s literal meaning (the weather is nice), then it registers the actual situation (the weather is not nice), and then it computes a disconnect and infers the ironic intent.

That’s an awful lot of extra brainpower for a throwaway remark. If the cognitive cost for all types of irony were at least that great, we might not bother. So lately scientists have been investigating potential shortcuts we use to grasp irony before our heads start to hurt.

In one recent experiment, led by psychologist Ruth Filik of the University of Nottingham, test participants with electrodes strapped to their heads listened to a recording of various ironic scenes. Some of the scenes employed familiar ironic phrases; a mother finds her son playing computer games instead of studying and says, “Working hard?” Other scenes had ironic punch lines that were far less familiar: someone enters a house with a minimalistic decor and says, “How homey!”

The resulting electrode measures suggest that the brain treats these two ironies quite differently. In the time window where much word recognition occurs (known as the N400 event-related potential), test participants struggled to process uncommon ironies more than they did neutral events–but they processed familiar ironies just as easily as neutral scenes. Which makes sense: Some irony is deployed so regularly that the brain treats it like any old literal statement.


“If we are used to hearing a particular comment intended ironically–for example, ‘That’s just great!’ or ‘Yeah right!’–then the ironic meaning will become stored in our ‘mental dictionary,’ making it as easy to retrieve as a comment that is intended literally,” Filik tells Co.Design. “However, ironic comments that we are less familiar with are not stored in this way, and so we have to interpret them ‘on the fly,’ which takes time and can be more difficult.”

Predictability also seems to play a role in how we process irony. In another recent study, test participants grasped irony more quickly after repeated exposures led them to expect it. That’s no surprise to anyone with a sarcastic friend or to David Spade fan(s). But in a more interesting side note, the study also found that participants with higher social skills discerned irony better than those with lesser skills. So irony isn’t cut and dry: Its cognitive impact varies based on our ability to recognize the context of the message and to infer the attitude of the messenger.

Science will keep wrestling with the details. What’s clear enough for now is that irony tends to require deeper processing and engagement when it’s new or unexpected. Which may may help explain why we can hum along so mindlessly to the irony-less “Ironic” but expend a bit more mental energy to keep up with the irony-filled spoof. It’s also why you can blow your own mind for a second by considering that maybe Alanis left irony out of “Ironic” because she saw that as the ultimate irony.

But frankly, that would be a little too ironic.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).