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Scientists created video inventory for people struggling to understand non-literal speech

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Posted November 30, 2015

Nowadays sarcasm and little lies are everywhere. Somehow we got to accept them as normal part of human interaction. However, for some people with certain disorders recognizing these little lies is difficult and now scientists from McGill University have created helping material for them.

For people with such diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as Autism spectrum disorders small lies or sarcasm are very hard to recognize and may interfere with having normal conversations. Image credit: Image via Wikimedia, Public Domain

For people with such diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as Autism spectrum disorders small lies or sarcasm are very hard to recognize and may interfere with having normal conversations. Image credit: Image via Wikimedia, Public Domain

We all heard it – someone compliments our hair in a way it is obvious they do not like it. It is just a simple sarcasm we all grew to accept and even use ourselves. However, for some it is very hard to understand whether person was actually being honest or said it as a funny lie. It is especially difficult for people with such diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as Autism spectrum disorders. For them any form of non-literal speech is hard to deal with. Now scientists developed video inventory to help these people to get to know the signs better.

Kathrin Rothermich, author of the paper about the research, said: “We tend to believe that people tell the truth most of the time. So sarcasm and white lies seem to go against a basic understanding of what ‘should’ be happening in conversation. This may be part of what makes them so difficult to recognize for some”.

The program was not easy – researchers spent the past two years creating and testing the Relational Inference and Social Communication video inventory, which consists from 926 videos. All of them feature short scripted scenes with actors trying to convey one specific intention through their speech and actions, sometimes being sincere and sometimes sarcastic.

Then scientists tested the video inventory on healthy patients to see if they can recognize small lies. In general they could, but sarcasm was especially hard to recognize, especially so for men. Participants were only better at recognizing sarcasm when it was used in relationships between friends. For actors teasing each other was the hardest task. To make it easier some of them spoke with exaggerated or fake accents. Scientists think it may be because teasing does not come as a natural part of conversation.

We may take it for granted, but for some people it does not come easy. Social interactions are very complex and people with certain disorders struggle to understand them properly, which is why such projects are needed and very useful. However, further research is needed as it was only tested on healthy people so far.

Videos available at: mcgill.ca

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