Video library pinpoints cues that signal sarcasm

"We tend to believe that people tell the truth most of the time," says Kathrin Rothermich, "so sarcasm and white lies seem to go against a basic understanding of what 'should' be happening in conversation." Watch four videos and then test your interpretations here. (Credit: Naomi/Flickr)

For people with autism spectrum disorder or diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, any form of non-literal speech such as sarcasm, teasing, or “white lies” can be very confusing.

A new video inventory of examples of these forms of indirect speech could help with diagnosis and clinical testing of these disorders.

“We tend to believe that people tell the truth most of the time,” says Kathrin Rothermich of McGill University’s School of Communication Disorders, “so sarcasm and white lies seem to go against a basic understanding of what ‘should’ be happening in conversation. This may be part of what makes them so difficult to recognize for some.”

Rothermich has spent the past two years creating and testing the Relational Inference and Social Communication video inventory that she and her colleague Marc Pell developed. These 926 videos feature short, scripted scenes with four actors interacting in different relationships (as romantic partners, as friends, as colleagues, or as boss/employee).

In each exchange, the actors were asked to convey one specific intention through their speech and actions: to be sincere, to tell “white lies,” to tease, or to be sarcastic.

Rothermich then tested the videos on a group of healthy participants to see whether they were able to identify the speakers’ intentions, and to get feedback about which vocal and facial cues had helped them identify what was going on. Watch four of these videos and test yourself here.

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Participants were generally well able to identify the speakers’ intention either when one of the actors was teasing someone else or when they were telling the truth. What proved to be more difficult—particularly so for men—was identifying when someone was being sarcastic. It was only when sarcasm was used in relationships between friends that participants were better able to recognize it.

“We discovered that the actors found it hardest to perform the scripts where they were being asked to tease one another,” says Rothermich. “This may be because teasing doesn’t always fit easily or logically into a conversation. One of the things that some actors did was to speak with exaggerated or fake accents when they were teasing, which is something that other researchers have also reported.”

The researchers believe that this video inventory will provide a useful tool for future research on social cognition, inter-personal communication, and the interpretation of a speaker’s intentions in both healthy adult and clinical populations.

The Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada supported the work, which appears in PLOS ONE.

Source: McGill University