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Older people lose the ability to detect sarcasm

12-Jan-16
Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

People aged 65 and over lose the ability to detect sarcasm and are more likely to misinterpret sarcastic comments and take the literal meaning than younger people, according to new research.

In the study by Aberdeen University, published in Developmental Psychology, older adults were shown examples of conversations between people and asked to judge whether the exchange was sarcastic or not. Younger and middle-aged adults were significantly better at identifying the sarcasm than older adults.

Professor Louise Phillips, chair in Psychology, 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.”

She suggested that losing the ability to respond appropriately to sarcasm might affect relationships and friendships as people age.

“For example, if someone says ‘I see you’re on time as usual’, this could literally mean what it says. Or, there might be a sarcastic intention, and then the underlying message is ‘You’re late. As usual’.”

“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.

“We found that older people were worse at detecting sarcasm and more likely to take the literal meaning than both younger and middle aged adults. This difference could not be explained by misunderstanding the conversation or memory difficulties.”

However being oblivious to sarcasm can be beneficial according to Professor Phillips, who said: “In some situations it might be a good thing to misinterpret sarcasm, given that it can sometimes be considered nasty or derogatory. Older adults are known to have a more positive outlook on life than younger adults and this may contribute to their failure to pick up on sarcastic undertones.”

This research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust

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