Sarcasm – often described as the lowest form of wit – is lost on the older generation, say scientists.
Over 65s are more likely to misinterpret sarcastic comments and take the literal meaning – rather than the intended jibe.
Younger and middle-aged adults were much better at identifying sarcasm than their elderly counterparts.
Psychologist Professor Louise Phillips said: “Losing the ability to respond appropriately to sarcasm might affect our relationships and friendships as we age.
“We already know 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.”
In the study 116 participants of all ages were shown examples of conversations between people and asked to judge whether the exchange was sarcastic or not.
Prof Phillips, of Aberdeen University, said: “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 how 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 older people were worse at detecting sarcasm and more likely to take the literal meaning than both younger and middle aged adults.
“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.”
In the study 90 percent of middle-aged people aged 40 to 64 and almost as many 18 to 39 year-olds picked upon sarcastic comments compared to 80 percent of those 65 and above.
British comedy has a reputation for being notoriously sarcastic with some characters such as Blackadder using it regularly.
It’s well known as a complex form of communication as it requires the listener to understand the literal meaning of what someone is saying.
Researchers say sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony.
Prof Phillips said she hopes to develop the research in future by looking at whether older people’s struggles with sarcasm is a good or bad thing.
She said: “It could be swings and roundabouts with a risk of putting more trust in people they shouldn’t but also being less upset by nasty comments because they go right over their head or get dismissed.”
The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
by Mark Waghorn
How true do you think this is? I’ve often wondered if sarcasm is the lowest form of wit what is the highest? Ed.