Sarcasm Can Be A Red Flag of Psychopathy, According to Research—How It Looks in Toxic Relationships

Fluent in sarcasm? That can actually be a potential red flag of psychopathy, according to research. A 2022 study of 715 adults conducted by Dr. Alberto Dionigi and colleagues revealed that psychopathy was most strongly correlated with “mockery” forms of humor such as satire, cynicism, and you guessed it – sarcasm. Psychopathy is characterized by callous-unemotional traits, instrumental aggression, a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse, superficial and glib charm, reckless behavior that harms self or others, and in some cases, criminal behavior. In this study, sarcasm was a humor style based on being critical of others and conveying contempt. Previous studies also support the fact that psychopathy is related to aggressive forms of humor that are characterized by a lack of empathy and egocentrism, such as making disparaging jokes as an intentional way to manipulate someone.  Psychopathic personality traits are also strongly related to the enjoyment of laughing at others and this is linked to the callousness and manipulativeness aspects of these traits.

A caveat: there is obviously a difference between using sarcasm as a “spice” to your jokes occasionally, and a whole other affair to use sarcasm to persistently demean, bully and manipulate the people around you. There may be nothing wrong with making an innocent sarcastic comment here or there that other people laugh at and mutually enjoy. But if no one’s joining in on your “fun” and people around you are begging you to be kinder and less patronizing, chances are you’re engaging in red-flag behavior.  

Psychopaths can engage in sarcasm for harmful reasons. According to Dr. Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist, psychopaths are prone to boredom and need constant stimulation. To obtain that stimulation, they may engage in reckless behaviors and manufacture chaos on purpose. Neuroscience studies indicate they may even find witnessing or causing the pain of others rewarding. Their sarcastic jabs at others can be tailored to create that chaos and gain that sense of reward. They might also find it easier to use sarcasm to communicate their contempt for a victim and take them down a peg or two, especially if that victim challenges their sense of entitlement or arouses their malicious envy. We also know from research that relationships with narcissistic and psychopathic partners can cause PTSD. Sarcasm can certainly be weaponized as one of the manipulation tools in a larger pattern of the emotional and psychological abuse that makes relationships with these pathological types so exhausting and traumatizing.

I asked people who had been in relationships with psychopathic partners to describe their experiences with how their partners used sarcasm in the relationship. Here’s what they had to say and the patterns that emerged about the way sarcasm was used in this relationship to manipulate them: 

Sarcasm can be used to gaslight and can escalate during the relationship. 

“Sarcasm was always there, but it definitely escalated during later phases of the relationship. Sarcasm was often used as a subtle way to minimize my feelings or put me down. If I challenged the sarcastic remarks in any way, then I was told that I needed to lighten up and learn to take a joke. This behavior, over time, slowly made me question my own perception, ignore my own feelings, and I even began to believe what he told me (like I can’t take a joke, for example). It turns out, I actually love joking around. I just don’t like manipulation wearing the cowardly disguise of sarcasm or jokes. There is a big difference. Jokes shouldn’t make you feel bad.”  —Erin

Sarcasm can be used with plausible deniability to make you doubt yourself.

“Sarcasm and humor are weaponized by them in a multifaceted way. Plausible deniability is one way. They can say or do something awful, but if it’s a joke, you’ll never prove their true intentions. It’s helpful in getting you to doubt yourself, making you feel like a prude or uptight person, someone who’s insecure, not fun, too much trauma in your bag. With anything from sexual demands, flirting with other people, triangulating you, they will almost always use a cruel and mocking form of sarcasm to respond to any of your pleas for decency, clarity, kindness or understanding. Then they get that secondary supply from another target which is when you finally just break down and cry and beg for mercy and want to end yourself. At that point they will look at you and tell you that you are to blame for all escalations, that your emotions are purely from some other previous experience. You’ll wind up feeling you need help, you can’t just take a joke, you can’t just let your partner verbally destroy you and let it pass… they’ll tell you those things are “normal” and you need too much special care.”Bonnie 

“Sarcasm was used widely and often as a means to gaslight, groom and destabilize. Sarcasm works well with plausible deniability. True story: the malignant narcissist literally sent me a can of cow dung for Valentine’s, as he lives in a farm with no shortage of animal dung. I complain about nature of this ‘gift’. He then counters with, “Jeez, where is your sense of humor?” So this sarcastic gesture is a dual weapon: it upsets victim then is used to further victimize when the victim objects. Sarcasm will also be freely used when delivering praise, so the praise is rendered meaningless. Sarcasm is definitely a useful tool with the capacity of a swiss knife.” —One 

Sarcasm can be used to depict you unfavorably while boosting the psychopath’s sense of superiority or self-image.

I think if they start to act sarcastically early, they don’t have to understand you, which conveniently serves their self-image. They can just snapshot you and fit you into a stereotype. If you can’t prove otherwise and get frustrated after a while, that just serves to prove their point. So, they start on the sarcasm as early as possible – even in the first day – to protect themselves from reality. It is often not noticeable at that stage, or even if you notice, you can’t respond or get gaslighted when you do. You are not given a chance to explain your whole, nuanced opinion. After they reach you and trigger you, you are marked as the unreasonable person. It gets worse after they gain leverage (by isolating you socially by punishing your social interactions, getting to know you). It makes a person doubt other people and be on edge all the time even after relationship ends which is very damaging.—Ozan

Sarcasm can also be weaponized to escape accountability and to bully and insult you.

“Sarcasm was one tactic used when feeling trapped or caught out, when the guilt of his own actions becomes insurmountable. It took some time before he was bold or drunk enough to verbalize these thoughts to me. It was absolutely used to bully and manipulate, in order to reinforce a smokescreen between reality and himself, in order to unsee that he is becoming his tormentors and his own tormentor.  It used to confuse me and send me into a spiral of self-doubt and fear of existential harm.” —Rach 

“My ex had a genius level IQ and was quite proud of his sarcastic abilities. When I would explain to him how hurtful it was, I was the problem because I was too sensitive. He was just exercising his ‘wit.’ It started after we were married and got increasingly worse and was used to control me and put me in my place while he still looked good. The word sarcasm comes from a Greek word which means tearing of the flesh. It is abuse I learned. I understand that, even today it’s used as a communication style on some dating sites. I stay away from anyone who uses it today.” —Marianne  

“When my children were toddlers and learning how to speak, they would ask daddy questions and he would answer them with sarcasm. They would just look at him, confused. It caused them to be upset and anxious. It was horrible.” —Theresa  

“He was so sarcastic that I couldn’t tell what he was serious about and what was just having an imagination. They use sarcasm as an excuse to be completely transparent with you.” —Kimberely 

“Sarcasm was used daily, whether it was a get out of a normal general question they didn’t want to answer, or it was used as a put down to me, usually in front of others. Others were horrified but I just laughed it off for years…but that’s what we do isn’t it? We spend years trying to help fix them. It affected me quite a lot, but I never showed it, it took a long time to break free and even longer to get some of the words and sentences and even tone of voice used out of my head.” —Laura 

“I feel sarcasm was used to manipulate and control me when I confronted him about issues and deal breakers. He would use sarcasm to belittle and shame me and keep me from confronting him.” —MB  

“The father of my four children made sarcastic jokes to insult me. After I’d left him, and while he was still sexually abusing me at my mom’s house, he tested this joke out on me and posted it to Twitter: “I met a girl who doesn’t have a nose ring. Very exotic.” I do have a nose ring, so he was making fun of me publicly and letting me know that he was seeing someone else while still having non-consensual sex with me. He enjoyed finding indirect ways to upset me.” —Joy

“Sarcasm can be used as part of gaslighting where it seems like a compliment, but it also minimizes an accomplishment or quality. This can take on characteristics of gaslighting and negging as well because the sarcasm is not intended to be obvious but to plant seeds of doubt in the person’s self-esteem.”—Amy 

“My ex used sarcasm but with deadpan delivery so you could be the fool, or butt of the joke if you didn’t understand. At first not at all and then all day to make fun of me or provoke me to react. Little digs making a toxic environment and keeping me on edge. Highlighting my insecurities and ramping them up. Interspersed with a compliment here and there to keep me from leaving.” –RC 

“They would say, “So I guess you’re perfect.” This was blameshifting sarcasm when there is irrefutable evidence that they are in the wrong. Instead of addressing the problem and apologizing, they use sarcasm to try to put the person who called them out on the defensive.” —Angela  

“My ex used sarcasm as a gaslighting tactic. Things like “Oh yeah, sure it happened that way” and similar phrases whenever I tried to remind him how something really happened. He was trying to gaslight me into believing that my experience of the situation was wrong. I absolutely believe that it was a belittling tactic and it made me feel completely dismissed and disrespected. And of course, whenever I dared to be sarcastic while speaking to him, I was punished with violent outbursts because how dare I give him a taste of his own medicine?” —Sofia  

“They would say things like, “Oh yeah, like you even care.”  When obviously I know that I do and did. I know my own feelings and emotions.  Or they would say, “No, that wasn’t a real insult, it was sarcasm, can’t you take a joke?”  No, because jokes should make people laugh, not hurt.  Or things like “Sure, you’ll do that, just like you did x.” They would gaslight me and reference something that they claimed never happened was done but in fact WAS done or did happen, just not to their perfect standards – so to them it didn’t count.” —Tres  

“Sarcasm was used to degrade/belittle me. For example, he would say things like, ‘Some people collect antics, some collect pushchairs’ or ‘You didn’t even know your vagina had a hole.’ Soon after an argument where he was verbally very nasty and abusive, he would make a silly, unexpected joke that made me slightly laugh then say, “At least I can still make you laugh.” I saw sarcasm was widely used in his family too  as a way to belittle each other’s gift choices/way of being and seemed to an acceptable way of demeaning each other. As long as it was communicated indirectly it was accepted (rather than having an honest conversation or setting a boundary with each other). He asked me what meal I wanted for my birthday as he would cook it, when I said what I wanted, his comment was: ‘Really, you must be joking, is that simple thing you want to eat for a birthday meal, come on.’ He expressed this to his young nephew, too when he learned that his nephew wanted a special garlic bread for birthday meal.” —Lydia 

“Sarcasm is used specifically to gaslight you, make you feel crazy, and let them get away with whatever horrible sarcastic comment they made to purposely hurt you, then avoid accountability by saying “It was a joke. You can’t take a joke.” They  blame you in the end. I’ll add that this doesn’t relate to only partners as I’ve seen “friends” do this too. There is never a willingness to understand another person’s feelings or validate them in any way.” —Henrietta 

“Sarcasm was always used as a manipulation and gaslighting tactic in order to get me to doubt or to invalidate my feelings. It was a passive aggressive way to attack me and let me know that they were somehow bothered by me.” —DJ Empress 

“He would say things like, ‘Well…I’m sure even you wouldn’t want to live in a house with blinds that were so uneven in the windows.’ This was said in an uber-sarcastic tone for the millionth time, as a way to try to manipulate me to make the mini-blinds even, which was really an attempt to de-stabilize and gaslight me so he could have more control. It’s the small controlling comments like this and the way he wanted the doorknobs closed so they wouldn’t make a sound…these were the entry-levels of his attempts to control me. These entry-level digs allowed me to become both confused, gaslit and numb as the abuse escalated. Sarcasm is mean-spirited at best, abusive in the hands of a narcissist.” —Rae 

“Not a romance, but a friendship. Sarcasm used to knock me down a peg under the guise of teasing. Also used in extended “bits” to poke at vulnerable areas like family or work dynamics. Every chance she had.” —Tiana  

“Sarcasm was used infrequently enough in front of friends for the purpose of making me look insecure. I remember privately telling the narcissist about how I was bullied in grade school because of my teeth. The narcissist brought this up at a lunch date with friends and everyone started laughing. I gave her a look and she started saying, “Well you were the one who brought it up. I thought that meant you could laugh about it now. Come on, chill I was just teasing.” I guess this was a form of dog-whistling too. I would just get quiet after this, and the sarcasm would continue like “Why are you quiet?” Knowing damn well why I was quiet and just wanted to be left alone. This happened almost every time we went out with friends.” —Heyoka 

“There were public sarcastic digs about a year or two in. To the point where even his mother said something to him to defend me (even when I did not)! She is my hero—it woke me up.” —Lisa 

Psychopaths can use sarcasm to threaten others.

“I was impacted by a psychopath that used psychosexual abuse, exploitation, psychological warfare, and likely war of attrition. They would use sarcasm through looks, cruelly forcing me to survive, threats to my life, terrorizing me and making scary faces, threats to animals and neighbors and community. They would use sarcasm when they threatened to stab me in my uterus or terrorize me with weapons around the home. I also experienced coercion and manipulation and behavior modification in what I wore, how I looked, and even what I ate. My psychopath literally got off on terrorizing me and his eyes would turn black. My psychopath would terrorize me along with his family that I was experiencing Stockholm syndrome. He terrorized me by saying that I poisoned him when I had already questioned if he had poisoned me and I believe he did.” Frankie 

Sarcasm can be used for mockery and belittling.

He would make fun of my voice, imitating me in that stereotypical valley girl, dumb kind of way. Then tell me I am smart when I say I don’t like it. He would speak to me really slowly, in a deadly calm, angry tone, to indicate I was just so stupid and to imply I just wasn’t getting it. When I asked for respect in the way he spoke to me, he would respond, “You act like an entitled princess. when you start acting like a queen, I’ll treat you like one.” —Danielle  

“If I said I was praying for someone or about a situation, he would say, in a mocking, sing-song way. ‘Go talk to your invisible sky daddy.’ This was when he touted himself as an atheist on social media. He was always pretending to be something…a Buddhist, atheist, Ram Dass follower, pagan, Satanic enthusiast, Guru…whatever he felt would give him the most attention/supply. He ALWAYS espoused to be the authority on any spiritual belief.” —Gail  

“Mine used to call me with a despising tone, ‘Mother Teresa.’ In his mouth it was sarcasm. At the time I had no idea why. Now I know he was jealous of the person I am. I am totally opposite to what he is, even though that is what attracted him in the first place. Those words were meant to make me feel ashamed of being a nice and loving person without a second thought or personal interest in using people. For him, being nice to someone is only a means to abuse that someone.” —Catherine 

“Constantly cutting me down and abusive boiling rage. Just hearing “Oh yeah, well…” In that inflection was violence.” —Rebecca  

“I was love bombed by one after my divorce and I fell for all the BS. He used sarcasm to demean my interests, my tattoos, my dogs, my friends on social media. It was negging and done with a ‘I am just joking’ attitude.” —Dani S.  

“After the love bombing phase, I was told that I was literal all the time and they (2 men from two different relationships) used sarcasm to make fun of something I meant, or to make fun of an earnest response to something they meant as rhetorical. It made me feel stupid for a number of reasons and they felt superior. I felt stupid for taking something that they said seriously and trying to answer with investment if what I had brought up was treated sarcastically and I didn’t pick up on the sarcasm. I was made to feel stupid if I had to ask if they were being sarcastic about other things because I couldn’t pick up on tone. I’ve never had this issue before with friends, just these two men I dated.” —Jenn 

A Reminder About Sarcasm In Toxic Relationships

If you are in a relationship with a psychopath or a malignant narcissist, you are not alone, and help is out there. Remember that healthy partners are not condescending or belittling. You deserve to be respected in your relationships. You may want to process your traumas with a mental health professional and seek support. You deserve healing and freedom.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.