Do young children understand irony?

Some children as young as six already understand the idea that people make sarcastic remarks, saying one thing but meaning another, according to psychologists Penny Pexman and Melanie Glenwright.

They presented 70 children aged between six and ten with different scenarios played out by puppets who made sarcastic comments. For example, if one puppet scored a goal, the other would say “That was terrible play!” with a sarcastic tone. Or if the shot missed, they might say “That was a great play!”.

The children then used a rating scale featuring cartoon faces to indicate their interpretation of a sarcastic puppet’s beliefs (whether he thought it was a good shot or not), attitude (was he trying to be mean?), and whether or not he was teasing.

The children found ironic criticisms – such as “that was great play” – easier to understand than ironic compliments. A grasp of the speaker’s true belief emerged first, then an understanding of the speaker’s attitude and intention to tease tended to emerge together, usually in the older children.

Ironic compliments – such as “that was terrible play!” after a goal – caused the children more problems. In this case an understanding of the speaker’s true belief and intention to tease appeared together, with an appreciation of his true attitude only emerging in older children. In fact, only two of the 70 children were always accurate about the attitudes of the speakers who made ironic compliments.

Pexman and Glenwright said this difficulty with ironic compliments probably occurs because the correct interpretation of them requires a two-fold process requiring inhibitory control. First the child must realise the negative statement is actually positive, then they must realise this positive statement, while complimentary, is intended in a jokey, teasing way.

“We predict that if one were to assess inhibitory control skills in children… performance on those measures would be correlated with children’s comprehension of ironic compliments”, they concluded.

Pexman, P.M. & Glenwright, M. (2007). How do typically developing children grasp the meaning of verbal irony? Journal of Neurolinguistics, 20, 178-196.
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