Ironic language is typically more difficult to process and interpret than a literal equivalent, hence is assumed to serve several social and emotional functions not achieved by literal communication (such as politeness or introducing humour). Several factors may influence emotional responses to irony, such as the perspective from which the utterance is encountered (e.g., speaker vs. target) and the tone of voice (prosody) used. To examine these issues, we conducted two event-related brain potential (ERP) studies in which participants listened to scenarios describing emotional responses to either literal criticism or ironic criticism. Ironic criticism was delivered with either natural or ironic prosody. Scenarios either described an emotional response the speaker expected to elicit from the target (speaker perspective), or the target's actual emotional response (target perspective). Expected or actual emotional responses were described as either 'amused' (Experiment 1) or 'hurt' (Experiment 2). ERPs were calculated time-locked to the end of the ironic or literal statements, and to the audio presentation of the critical emotion words. Results showed a significant effect of perspective for amused conditions, reflected by a larger late posterior positivity for the target than speaker conditions, indicating amused responses are more expected from speaker than target perspective. This effect was not seen for hurt conditions, suggesting these are equally expected from target and speaker perspectives. The data also revealed a more negative-going ERP waveform specifically for ironic criticism delivered with ironic prosody, reflecting prosodic processing. This suggests prosody may be able to speed the identification of irony.
Thompson, D., Leuthold, H., & Filik, R. (2021). Examining the influence of perspective and prosody on expected emotional responses to irony: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 75(2), 107-113. https://doi.org/10.1037/cep0000249