Gdańsk University Professor Explains How Psychopaths Use Sarcasm And Irony

Researchers Agnieszka Fanslau and Piotr Kalowski explore the anatomy of irony and sarcasm in the dark triad.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | 05 March, 2024

A new study published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences explores dark triad predictors using irony and sarcasm. Despite what people think, irony and sarcasm are distinct humor styles with different uses across dark triad personalities—psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism.

I recently spoke to lead author Agnieszka Fanslau, Assistant professor at the University of Gdańsk, and co-author Piotr Kalowski of the University of Economics and Human Sciences, to discuss the nuances of sarcasm and irony across different dark triad personalities. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What are the critical differences between irony and sarcasm?

Both irony and sarcasm are popular forms of figurative language that people use in a variety of contexts. Here, "figurative" roughly means "nonliteral." So, verbal irony is typically conceptualized as "saying the opposite of what you mean" and communicating a (commonly) negative attitude toward someone or something.

The opposite situation (i.e., hidden communication of praise through overt reprimand) occurs much less frequently. Some do not even consider it irony but friendly banter, and is used only between close friends. Irony is highly flexible as a figure of speech. It can be used for friendly and humorous purposes and to communicate negative emotions or verbal aggression.

Sarcasm, in turn, has been used as a synonym for irony in many studies. However, the relationship between the two is more complicated. Sometimes, it is perceived as an exceptionally caustic type of irony—filled with anger, distrust, and contempt—and sometimes, it is an entirely separate phenomenon, although it is related to irony.

Some call it "the bad brother" of irony, which can be good-natured. Moreover, sarcasm without irony is also possible. That is, the tone alone (without a superficial, positive meaning) is enough to consider a statement sarcastic. Sarcastic speakers are perceived as more aggressive, contemptuous and distrustful than those using irony.

Matters become even more complicated if we take into account different cultures. For smiling cultures (e.g., USA, Great Britain), it does not matter much whether you say "irony" or "sarcasm"—they will be synonyms. For people from countries with high power distance (the dimension that deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal) and low indulgence (where people feel that social norms restrain their actions and that indulging themselves is somewhat against them, e.g., Poland), the (perceived) differences will be huge.

How do psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism relate to irony and sarcasm?

Recent research on irony and sarcasm shows that individual differences, particularly personality traits, may contribute to the understanding, frequency of use, and enjoyment of irony and sarcasm. Funny and witty individuals enjoy irony. In contrast, those who experience a lot of anger and frustration are prone to using a highly aggressive humor style such as satire and sarcasm.

The Dark Triad (DT) is a constellation of three overlapping personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. What they have in common is a low level of empathy, a tendency towards self-promotion and aggression, recklessness and manipulation of others.

Previous research in context of verbal behaviors has shown that individuals with DT traits use more swearing, aggression, and offensive language for various purposes (apart from gaining attention, also to amuse others, like individuals high in narcissism, who use more sexual content in their expressions).

However, there is not much data on the relationship between the DT traits and the use of irony and sarcasm. Conclusions about it are drawn indirectly, for example, based on the pragmatic effects of the so-called aggressive humor style—a broader theoretical concept in which irony and sarcasm are also present.

In just a few studies on the relationship between DT traits and the use of irony and sarcasm (where other types of verbal humor are also taken into account), psychopathy (impulsivity, recklessness, and low empathy) relates to sarcasm. In contrast, Machiavellianism (a tendency to manipulate others) relates to irony.

In our study, we expected that each of the DT traits would be associated with the use of both irony and sarcasm. This is because we assumed that people high in DT traits would declare using these figures of speech more frequently overall, possibly to be more hurtful.

However, if sarcasm indeed means more ridicule and verbal aggression than irony, we also wondered whether there would be other patterns in their relationship to DT traits. We wanted to answer whether there is a DT trait (or traits) that would distinguish irony from sarcasm. If so, this would add a layer of psychological distinction to these two concepts, which are otherwise typically determined mainly based on linguistic theory.

It turned out that both irony and sarcasm were correlated with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism, conceptualized as one general factor of overlapping traits. In other words, high levels of one co-occurred with high levels of the other. Moreover, we also found that agentic narcissism was the driver of both irony and sarcasm use.

However, it was psychopathy that turned out to be a specific determinant of sarcasm and not irony. This result distinguishes irony and sarcasm beyond merely a theoretical debate.

Can you discuss the implications of psychopathy as a unique predictor of sarcasm?

Psychopathy, as a unique predictor of sarcasm, proves that it contains an element of verbal aggression or a lack of concern for the interlocutor's feelings. Sarcasm is, therefore, rightly associated with verbal aggression, lack of concern for the interlocutor's feelings, maliciously critical attitude, and hostile behavior towards (weaker) people.

It is discrediting and takes away some of the dignity of the person it concerns because it is very difficult to refute. This does not mean that everyone who uses sarcasm is a psychopath. Rather, this means that people exhibiting higher levels of psychopathy will be more likely to use sarcasm, most likely due to its capacity for verbal aggression.

However, we must emphasize that we mean psychopathy as a DT trait, not as a personality disorder. Our study, and specifically the questionnaires used, are standard self-report methods for social, not clinical, research.

On another level, psychopathy as a unique predictor of sarcasm and not irony adds crucial evidence for the distinction between these two types of nonliteral language. Thus, we can show that there is something real behind this distinction and that it does not result merely from theoretical linguistic debate.

Were there any notable age or gender differences in the study?

We did not find any gender differences in our study, which was somewhat of a surprise considering that these differences are reported quite frequently. Men tend to score higher on irony and sarcasm scales. This is partly due to the social imperative for women to be "nice." However, we did not observe these differences.

Regarding age, the negative correlation with the use of irony might tempt us to conclude that the tendency weakens with age. Still, our group was not diverse enough in terms of age to allow for drawing inferences about older individuals.

Moreover, we must be aware of the differences between what we, as psychologists studying humor and language, and what people in everyday parlance mean when we use such terms as "irony" and "sarcasm." Indeed, some valuable research shows that popular understanding does not always converge with scientific knowledge.

We also need to add the ever-changing cultural norms and the fact that many psychological studies rely on subjective self-report. Perhaps studying gender differences in verbal behaviors should consider using more observation or corpus-based methodologies to fill out those parts of the picture where our quantitative, questionnaire-based methodology approaches its limits.

What advice would you offer to individuals looking to improve their understanding and use of irony and sarcasm?

I'm not good at giving advice. However, I would like to point out a few considerations about irony and sarcasm:

  • Irony and sarcasm both belong to humor—it may go well, it may go badly, but in my opinion, they need to be spoken out.
  • Being ironic or sarcastic is sometimes a spontaneous decision during a conversation.
  • A sarcastic statement differs from irony as it is much more poisonous. It has a more gloomy and emotional tone, which sometimes takes sarcasm beyond the boundaries of comedy—but their structure is usually the same.
  • Sarcasm targets an individual rather than an institution.
  • When it comes to irony and sarcasm, moderation is key. When used too often, they become boring, annoying and lose their power.
  • Irony and sarcasm are signals of intelligence and wit.
  • Irony is fun! Ironic people are satisfied with life, while sarcastic individuals are stuck in a bad mood.

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