Event Abstract

The development of irony comprehension

  • 1 University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy

Introduction. Comprehending an ironic remark requires (i) detecting speaker’s meaning, which is typically the opposite of sentence’s meaning and (ii) inferring speaker’s mocking attitude (Winner 1997). Ackerman (1983) argued that these are distinct processes, since around the age of 6 children understand that what the speaker literally said clashes with what she believes, whilst it takes more time to understand why she chose to utter an ironic remark (see Dews & Winner 1997 for a review). Studies on typically developing (TD) children (Winner & Leekam 1991, Sullivan et al. 1995) and atypical populations (adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), Happé 1993 and right hemisphere brain-damaged patients, Winner et al. 1998) found a connection between irony comprehension and 2nd order Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities. On the other hand, it is well known that linguistic abilities predict ToM development (at least up to 1st order ToM, Astington & Jenkins 1999). Besides ToM and linguistic abilities, also previous exposure to sarcasm could facilitate children’s understanding of irony: ironic criticisms (literally positive remarks that comment on a negative situation), the most common form of sarcasm, are comprehended earlier and better than ironic compliments (negative remarks used to congratulate someone) (Hancock et al. 2000, Harris & Pexman 2003, Nakassis & Snedeker 2002). The research project. We thus decided to test irony comprehension, controlling for ToM and linguistic abilities, in Italian typically and atypically developing children. Since in TD children both linguistic skills and ToM abilities improve with age, we are currently testing also atypical populations in which we can expect an asymmetry in the development in one of these abilities, with the aim of disentangling the contribution of ToM and linguistic abilities. A first group consists of children with high functioning autism (HFA), in which we expect intact language skills and an impaired ToM (Baron-Cohen 2000 a.o.). A second group consists of children and adolescents with Down Syndrome (DS), who are reported to have severely compromised linguistic skills (Abbeduto et al. 2007), but also a relative strength of in social functioning, and affect sharing emotions (Fidler et al. 2009). A last group of particular interest consists of prelingually deaf children. This population may show a ToM delay (Woolfe et al. 2002, a.o.). A preliminary study (in collaboration with Francesca Foppolo) has been conducted on children with cochlear implants (Panzeri & Foppolo 2016). We are now extending the research also on Italian Sign Language (LIS) native signers. There are no study on irony comprehension in this group, and we believe that limited exposure to instances of ironic statements (since it is difficult to find peers who sign, few TV programs are subtitled, besides difficulties in achieving reading skills in Italian, their second language) might influence their understanding of irony. Our participants thus are: TD children. We tested 35 preschool children (TD_PS; 17 F, 18 M; Age: M=5;4; Range: 3;8 – 6;1) and 56 school-aged (1st to 3rd grade) children (TD_SA; 25 F, 31 M; Age: M=7;10; Range: 6;5 – 9;4). HFA children. (Study in collaboration with Greta Mazzaggio.) Up to now, we tested 14 HFA children (1 F, 16 M; Age: M=7;4; Range: 4;7 – 10;4). DS children. (Study in collaboration with Laura Zampini). Up to now, we tested 14 DS children and adolescents (7 F, 7 M; Age: M=13;5; Range: 10;9 – 15;3). LIS Deaf signers. (Study in collaboration with Lara Mantovan.) Up to now, we tested 10 LIS native signers (3 F; 7 M; Age: M: 9;2; Range: 7;5 – 11;7). All participants were administered Raven Coloured Progressive Matrices (Belacchi et al. 2008) for non-verbal IQ. ToM abilities were tested using three tasks of Wellman & Liu (2004), a 1st order ToM task, and a 2nd order ToM task (Sullivan et al. 1994). School-aged TD children who were tested only on 1st and 2nd order ToM tasks. Linguistic abilities were assessed with a morpho-syntactic task of the Batteria di Valutazione del linguaggio (BVL, Marini et al. 2005). Since there are no standardized tasks for evaluating children’s linguistic abilities in Italian Sign Language, we used the Narrative Competence Task of the BVL, and used Mean Length of Utterance (MLU) as measure of linguistic proficiency. As for irony comprehension, we administered a new task developed by our research team. The irony comprehension task consists of 10 brief stories, concluding with a remark, literal (4) or ironic (6 – 3 ironic criticisms and 3 ironic compliments). Participants were asked three questions about i) detection of speaker’s meaning, ii) context (control), and iii) recognition of speaker’s attitude. For LIS participants, the stories were signed by a deaf native signer and video-recorded. Since we did not finish collecting data, and the samples of atypical populations are too small to conduct statistical analyses, we will report only the general results of irony understanding and some preliminary data on TD children. Figure 1 plots the accuracy on the irony comprehension task, for the question assessing the detection of speaker’s meaning in the ironic and literal stories. It is evident that all participants could perform the task, as shown by at ceiling accuracy for the stories ending with a literal remark. TD children reach a good comprehension of irony during the first years of primary school. The other populations show a delay in the comprehension of non-literal stories with respect to their age-matched peers. As for the predictors for irony understanding, the results on TD children indicate that linguistic, and not ToM, abilities predict irony understanding. An analogous pattern is found also for LIS signers (with MLU correlating with irony comprehension). Further analyses on the other atypical populations will hopefully help us shed more light on the factors that better predict irony understanding.

Figure 1


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Keywords: Irony comprehension, theory of mind (ToM), Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down Syndrome, sign language

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Acquisition of pragmatic and mind-reading abilities

Citation: Panzeri F and Giustolisi B (2019). The development of irony comprehension. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00004

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Received: 10 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: PhD. Francesca Panzeri, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy, francesca.panzeri@unimib.it