Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation




Experimental Psychology

First Advisor

Amit Almor


DISS_para>Sarcasm, or sarcastic irony, involves expressing a message that is often opposite of the literal meaning of what is being said, in a way that may sound bitter, or caustic (Gibbs, 1986). In the past, sarcasm has been viewed as a method of introducing the possibility of alternative interpretations of a discourse, by creating ambiguity as to the intended discourse interpretation. The current series of experiments sought to demonstrate that sarcasm could be viewed as beneficial in resolving ambiguity in conversation, by highlighting particular interpretations and thus ease processing, dependent on other available contextual information. Two Visual World studies are reported in which this theory is tested. First, the variables associated with the social contexts represented in the conversations were normed in Experiment 1. Second, spoken conversations involving two speakers discussing events that were occurring within a town were presented to participants in Experiments 2 & 3. Experiment 2 presented a two-sentence conversation in which the first speaker introduced an ambiguous homophone in their utterance, and a second speaker followed with a comment made using Sarcastic Prosody. Experiment 3 also presented a two-sentence discourse, with the first speaker making a generic comment, and the second speaker following with a homophone reference spoken with Sarcastic Prosody. Within the experiments, sarcasm increased the processing of alternative interpretations of the homophones differently depending on the social context and the characteristics of the homophone (such as written frequency, and meaning dominance), suggesting it successfully highlighted particular alternatives, rather than all possible interpretations. Theories such as Relevance Theory would predict this effect of sarcasm, such that given the proper conversational and contextual constraints, sarcasm can be used by speakers in a manner beneficial to listeners.


© 2013, Sara Ann Peters

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