Studies: Cynicism Starts Young and Sarcasm Is Complex

ByABC News
May 31, 2005, 10:27 AM

June 1, 2005 — -- Are you the cynical, sarcastic type? Scientists are on to you.

A recent series of studies has gone beyond asking basic questions about the brain, such as how we speak or tell our limbs to move, and is probing more complex areas of cognition. Some researchers now want to know how we understand metaphors, why we "get" sarcasm (or don't), and how soon we become cynical.

A healthy cynic might ask, why spend the time and money to understand all these things in the first place? Besides shedding light on certain diseases, researchers claim it's necessary to understand all functions of the brain -- basic and obscure -- to get a full sense of how our minds work.

"Even though linguists may not study these things, they make up a large part of what it means to be human," said V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego.

Among the traits thought to be uniquely human is our capacity to be cynical.

Candice Mills, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University, recently surveyed Connecticut schoolchildren ages 6 to 12 to find out how early they learned to process information with a grain of salt.

"We tend to think of children as being extremely gullible -- that they believe everything they hear," said Mills who recently earned her doctorate at Yale. "We wanted to see how true that was."

True to predictions, children younger than 8 years old in the survey proved to be fairly gullible. But, to their surprise, 8- to 12-year-olds turned out to be a very cynical bunch.

When told stories about competitors running or swimming in a close race and then saying they had won, the children were asked if they thought the characters were lying. Those between 8 and 12 years old doubted the competitors had actually won the race. What's more, when asked why characters might say they had won if they hadn't, the children didn't cut the characters any slack -- they said the characters were flat-out lying.