Sarcasm wasted on older people who take comments too literally
Published 12/01/2016 | 13:49
Older adults are not as good at detecting sarcasm as younger people and it could affect their relationships with friends and family, according to researchers.
A team from the University of Aberdeen found adults over 65 are more likely to misinterpret sarcastic comments and take the literal meaning, rather than the intended jibe.
Taking comments the wrong way could affect relationships and friendships, Professor Louise Phillips said.
But it could also be a good thing for some as sarcasm can be considered nasty or derogatory, the project leader added.
As part of the study, published in Developmental Psychology, older adults were shown examples of conversations between people and asked to judge whether the exchange was sarcastic or not.
Researchers from Aberdeen - working with teams from the University of Geneva and University College London - found younger and middle-aged adults were significantly better at identifying sarcasm than older adults.
Professor Phillips, chair in psychology at the University of Aberdeen, said: "Losing the ability to respond appropriately to sarcasm might affect our relationships and friendships as we age.
"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 added: "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.
"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, 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."