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Using shared knowledge to determine ironic intent; a conversational response paradigm

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2020

School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
Christina S. KIM
Department of English Language and Linguistics, School of European Culture and Languages, University of KentUK
*Corresponding author: Kent Child Development Unit, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Keynes College Canterbury CT2 7NP, UK E-mail:


Mentalising has long been suggested to play an important role in irony interpretation. We hypothesised that another important cognitive underpinning of irony interpretation is likely to be children's capacity for mental set switching – the ability to switch flexibly between different approaches to the same task. We experimentally manipulated mentalising and set switching to investigate their effects on the ability of 7-year-olds to determine if an utterance is intended ironically or literally. The component of mentalising examined was whether the speaker and listener shared requisite knowledge.

We developed a paradigm in which children had to select how a listener might reply, depending on whether the listener shared knowledge needed to interpret the utterance as ironic. Our manipulation of requisite set switching found null results. However, we are the first to show experimentally that children as young as seven years use mentalising to determine whether an utterance is intended ironically or literally.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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