David Brent helps scientists understand why grandparents can be embarrassing
Published 03/02/2011 | 15:16
Scientists claim to have finally figured out why grandparents can be embarrassing.
They did it by studying a group of over 60s watching The Office, the sitcom featuring Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a socially inept middle manager.
Psychologists found that older people were less adept at spotting Brent's gaffes, which include him abandoning a wheelchair-bound woman in a stairwell during a fire alarm and failing to realise he cannot dance.
Compared to younger participants, the older volunteers were also less able to identifying the varying emotions of the other characters.
Ted Ruffman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said the implication was that the those who found faux pas difficult to spot were more likely to make them.
The 121 participants, half aged 18 to 35 and half over 60, were asked to say whether Brent's behaviour was appropriate or not after watching certain clips. In half the clips his behaviour was broadly appropriate and in half it was not.
The participants also took tests to gauge how well they recognised emotions through facial expressions, tone of voice and body language.
On average the older volunteers were less able to identify inappropriate behaviour and varying emotions than the younger ones.
Explaining why he and his colleagues carried out the study, published in the American journal Psychology and Aging, Prof Ruffman said: "If you look at recognition of expressions of faces, or of bodies, or of voices, we get worse as we get older.
"At least by 60 years of age, but even in middle age, there's some evidence that we get worse.
"So we started to wonder about what's the cause of this and how broad are the declines? Would we find them in all other aspects of social understanding?"
Prof Ruffman said the difference between the two groups "isn't huge but it's there".
He added: "The implication is that difficulties in spotting faux pas are related to difficulties in the social world."
Previous research by the University of Otago group has shown that people over 60 are worse at recognising anger, sadness and fear.
The researchers think this might be in part because older people find it more difficult to read the changing geometry of a person's face, which provides the brain with clues about their emotions.
Another study found that older men were more likely be "verbose" because they "fail to decipher the emotional cues of a listener".
Their research contradicts that of Prof Robert Levenson, a psychologist at Berkeley University in California, who found that emotional intelligence peaks in one's 60s.