Irony is often related to humor, both in spoken and written language. One possibility is that humor arises once people reconcile the incongruity between what speakers say and imply when using irony. Humor automatically emerges in these cases given the release of tension following a momentary sense of disparity. Our claim is that this proposal does not capture many of the dynamic complexities in real-world ironic discourse. We describe psychological research on irony understanding showing that ironic meanings are not always understood via a process of drawing conversational implicatures. Studies on people's spontaneous laughter when using irony suggest that the recognition of incongruity between what is said and implied is not necessary for eliciting humor. Laughter occurs at various places in conversation, and not necessarily at the end of speakers' utterances. People also laugh for reasons other than humor, such as to signal affiliation. Overall, finding the humor in irony is not the same as seen in simple jokes, and demands examination of a complex host of contextual factors not always considered in linguistic theories of humor.
About the authors
Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. is Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz. His research interests are in the fields of experimental psycholinguistics and cognitive science. His work concerns a range of theoretical issues, ranging from questions about the role of embodied experience in thought and language, to looking at people's use and understanding of figurative language (e.g., metaphor, irony, idioms).
Gregory A. Bryant is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. His research interests are in experimental psycholinguistics and evolutionary psychology. His work focuses on verbal and non-verbal signals in conversational interactions, and their evolutionary antecedents.
Herbert L. Colston is Professor and Chair of Linguistics, University of Alberta. His research interests are in experimental psycholinguistics and cognitive science. Most of his work addresses how people use and interpret different forms of figurative language.
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