New research has shown a certain type of joke that over 60s just don’t get: sarcasm. According to a study published in Developmental Psychology, people over 65 are less able to detect and understand sarcasm.
Sarcasm is characterised, as we’re sure you know, is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt, often for comic effect. However, the new research shows that ageing tends to make people less able to perceive emotional cues and understand the intentions of others.
The study, led by Professor Louise Phillips of the University of Aberdeen, asked 116 participants to view series of videos and written stories, then explain them.
“For example,” the study says, “in one simple sarcasm video, a woman is busily doing a domestic task while a man reads a book and she says (sarcastically): ‘Are you busy? I know you’ve got a lot on.’” Participants were then required to answer yes or no to the questions: Is she is trying to pressure him into helping her? Is she trying to say it’s OK if he doesn’t help? Is she annoyed with him? and so on. When all the tests were marked, the 36 people who were older than 65 were just as good as the rest at understanding non-sarcastic conversations, but around seven percentage points worse on the sarcastic ones. “Older adults have problems in decoding different types of sarcasm,” the study concluded, reports the Guardian.
Obviously, it is sensible to draw conclusions about old people based on the behaviour of 36 of them!
The study even admits this mightn’t be a perfect example: “There is a stereotype that recent generations use irony and sarcasm more frequently than previous generations do,” it says. “However, there is not much empirical evidence to determine whether this reflects reality”.
Professor Louise Phillips, who led the study, warned that being unable to understand sarcasm could have an adverse affect on our relationships as we get older.
She said, “We already know that engaging in social interactions is valuable, particularly as we age, and we were interested in finding out how the normal ageing process might affect our ability to understand subtle social cues such as sarcasm.
“Until now, no-one has looked at how older adults interpret sarcasm, and specifically, if they can flip the literal meaning to understand the intended meaning. So, we are interested in finding out whether our ability to understand other people’s intentions changes as we age.”
“Deciding which way to interpret the statement depends on the context, and also the speaker’s tone of voice and facial expression. How this is interpreted can obviously affect the outcome of the conversation and ultimately determine how relationships develop”, she said.