• The comprehension of irony in high and low emotional contexts

      Pfeifer, Valeria A; Lai, Vicky T; Department of Psychology, University of Arizona; Cognitive Science Program, University of Arizona (American Psychological Association, 2021-04-12)
      Verbal irony is when words intend the opposite of their literal meaning. We investigated the emotional function of irony by asking whether irony intensifies or mitigates negative feelings. Experiment 1 used ratings to assess the mental state of a speaker using irony or literal language following a negative event in either a high- or a low-emotional context. We found that regardless of context emotionality, speakers using irony were perceived as being in a less negative and less aroused mental state than speakers using literal language. In Experiment 2, we examined the time course of this process with ERPs. Initially, literal statements elicited a larger N100 than irony, regardless of context emotionality, suggesting that irony mitigates negative feelings overall. Later on, irony elicited a larger LPC than literal statements in high emotion contexts, but not in low emotion contexts. This suggests that irony required more mental state processing or/and more speaker emotion processing than literal language in emotionally loaded situations. These results indicate that whether irony intensifies or mitigates negative feelings depends on context and the point in time at which we assess its function. Public Significance Statement—Using brainwave and behavioral measures, we found that in a negative situation, people initially find literal statements more threatening and irony more difficult to process. After they have a second to integrate and re-analyze semantic, pragmatic, and emotional information, they think that the person using irony is less negatively impacted by the emotional situation. This study contributes to a broader understanding on the interaction between emotion and language.