The paradox of sarcasm: Theory of mind and sarcasm use in adults

Ning ZHU, Zhenlin WANG

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


While there is evidence suggesting that sarcasm comprehension is positively associated with the theory of mind (ToM), it remains unclear whether ToM ability predicts sarcasm use in any way. A random sample of 171 undergraduate students participated in an open-ended ToM measure, namely the social faux pas stories, and a purpose-designed multiple-choice sarcasm use tendency task. Results showed that participants were less likely to use sarcasm compared to literal criticism. They were more likely to use sarcasm when being personally offended, and with friends. Not only were males more likely to use sarcasm than females, they were also more likely to be on the receiving end of it, whereas female participants were less likely to use sarcasm, especially with female addresses. Most importantly, ToM ability negatively correlated with sarcasm use in all contexts; however, individuals with high-level ToM ability showed slightly elevated tendency towards using sarcasm in delicate contexts. Instead of using sarcasm aggressively as those with low-level ToM, people with high-level ToM might use sarcasm wisely in safe context where the addressee is less likely to be provoked to diffuse social tension. Copyright © 2020 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Article number110035
JournalPersonality and Individual Differences
Early online dateApr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


Zhu, N., & Wang, Z. (2020). The paradox of sarcasm: Theory of mind and sarcasm use in adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 163. Retrieved from


  • Sarcasm use
  • Theory of mind
  • Content of sarcasm
  • Relationship distance
  • Gender
  • Verbal aggression
  • PG student publication


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