Do Old People Understand Sarcasm?

If it seems like anytime you're trying to hold a conversation with older generations you're practically speaking a different language, it might be that you are — sort of, anyway. A new study claims that it's more difficult for elderly people to understand sarcasm. Isn't that just great? What could be better. (For those over 65, I was being sarcastic there... but hopefully you caught that.)

In the study, which was published in the journal Development Psychology, researchers at the University of Aberdeen showed 116 participants between the ages of 18 and 86 a series of videos and written stories and asked questions about them. In some of the videos and stories, sarcasm featured heavily; for instance, the study explains, “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.’” Other stories or videos featured no sarcasm at all, and were used as a control group.

Overall, the researchers found that there was no difference in comprehension among younger, middle aged, or elderly participants when it came to the control group, but when it came to stories in which sarcasm was a key component, the 36 participants who were over 65 years old "were poorer at understanding sarcastic intent compared with younger and middle-aged participants," and this held true for both the written material and the videos.

In other words, old people just don't understand sarcasm. Of course, I can think of quite a few old people — including my grandmother — who might object to that finding.

So if older adults don't understand sarcasm, why is that? Is it that people today are more sarcastic than they used to be, meaning people born a long time ago never needed to develop the finely-tuned irony detectors that is practically a necessity in the age of Internet humor? Or could it be that as you get older and your mind begins to decline that an ability to perceive sarcasm is one of the first things to go? After all, researchers have found that understanding sarcasm requires a lot of "mental gymnastics" and is actually a rather sophisticated cognitive process. So it would make sense if, once you get older and your brain gets tired that sarcasm might not be so obvious anymore.

Then again, as The Guardian points out in a pitch-perfect bout of sarcastic analysis, taking this study too seriously might be just a tiny bit premature. "Obviously, it is sensible to draw conclusions about old people based on the behaviour of 36 of them," Leo Benedictus writes. "And clearly, when you’re being tested for sarcasm-awareness you respond to filmed examples of it in the same way that you would respond in real life."

Basically, don't go trying to sass your grandmother and hope she doesn't notice. If she's anything like mine, it's not worth the risk.

Image: Giphy