Empathy Helps Children to Understand Sarcasm

The greater the empathy skills of children, the easier it is for them to recognize sarcasm, according to a new study in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

For children, sarcastic language can be difficult to understand. They generally begin to recognize sarcasm between ages 6 and 8, especially familiar sarcastic praise such as “Thanks a lot!” and “Nice going!” But some children take much longer to begin to understand sarcasm, with detection improving even through adolescence.

In a new study, Penny Pexman, Juanita Whalen, and Andrew Nicholson investigated whether differences in the ability of children to empathize with others might help to explain why.

The researchers looked at empathy specifically because they thought that in order to understand sarcasm children must be able to adopt the perspective of the speaker — to understand the speaker’s attitude and emotions.

The study involved 31 children between 8 and 9 years old in a task that required them to recognize sarcasm. After children watched a series of puppet shows that included either sarcastic or non-sarcastic praise, they were asked to pick up a “mean” toy shark if they believed that the puppets had spoken sarcastically, or a “nice” duck otherwise. Each child was tested 12 times, with different puppets and scenarios. The empathy skills of the children were measured separately.

Full story of empathy and children at Science Daily

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