I think “it is what it is” is a valid, substantive point in most cases, and that Katy Perry deserves a spot on Vogue’s best-dressed list.
Clearly, I’m being sarcastic on both counts. Or, maybe it’s not immediately clear. Without sleep, it may take a few moments to determine whether or not I intended to be a smart ass or truly believe that dismissive idioms make for persuasive rhetoric and Katy Perry’s sexy candyland style merits high praise. In a new study, published in the journal PLOS One, Belgian researchers found that sleep-deprived people can detect sarcasm fairly accurately — they just take longer to get there.
The study involved 30 college-aged participants, half of whom got a full night’s sleep while the other half stayed up all night. At 9 am, researchers tested participants’ sarcasm-detection abilities. After reading about a fictional scenario involving a group of friends, participants listened to a neutrally-toned voicemail message that one friend left for another one. Participants had to interpret the message’s intended tone (sincere or sarcastic) as well as decide how the recipient would perceive it. The assessment included 18 such scenarios, which participants could interpret in one of four ways: The message was intended and interpreted as sarcastic, intended and interpreted as sincere, intended as sincere but interpreted as sarcastic or vice versa.
Here’s one example. (Keep in mind, the study was conducted in french and translated into english).
“Anaïs is going on vacation to Barcelona. Her friend Clemence would also like to visit the city soon and asks Anaïs to tell her what she thinks of her hotel. Therefore Anaïs, once there, sends Clemence a post card saying: “Dear Clemence, you will love Barcelona at the one condition that you do not stay at the hotel we are in: it is dodgy, ugly and dirty! That excluded, it is all sun and party!” A few days later, Anaïs is back from her holidays and wants to call her friend to tell her about her trip. As she reaches the voice mail, she leaves a message: “Hi Clemence, I’m back! I need to tell you about our hotel: a small and charming institution, and impeccably clean.”
In this case, the message was both intended and interpreted as sarcastic, per the study.
To the researchers’ surprise, sleep-deprived participants detected sarcasm as well as participants coming off a #hardeight. But those who’d been up all night responded more slowly. Researchers had expected to see a greater difference in accuracy because identifying sarcasm is a complex cognitive process. Mostly, it hinges on theory of mind, the ability to understand someone else’s perspective. To do that, one must consider both the content of the statement and the context in which the sarcastic son of a bitch uttered it. This sort of task — analyzing and making use of newly learned information as it comes in — is called working memory, which has been shown to suffer with sleep loss.
In the study, authors explained the slow response rates as a means of compensating. Successful social interactions are critical to getting through the daily grind, and thus, a capacity that our Darwinian brains prioritize. So, we devote depleted mental resources to interpreting sarcasm, leaving less brainpower to facilitate quick thinking. As with most complex tasks, there’s some inverse relationship between time and quality. Sleep-deprivation may amplify the trade-off.