March 10, 2010

A possible explanation of why older people laugh at all the wrong parts of movies

Recently I was sitting in a theater, groaning to myself as I sat through yet another movie where the middle-aged to old people in the audience were laughing at all the wrong things. When I say wrong, I don't mean it like "You have no sense of humor if you don't laugh at the Blue Collar Comedy Tour!" but rather "I can deduce from my higher cognitive functioning that what we just witnessed on screen was not designed to elicit laughter." Sometimes things in a drama or horror film that are meant as serious become so silly that people end up laughing, but this was something different. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was very frustrated and annoyed by the (at least) middle-aged people who laughed uproariously at the appearance of a toilet in A Single Man. I will restate for emphasis that Colin Firth was sitting on the toilet merely because it was the place in his house that offered a key view of his neighbor's backyard. There was absolutely no joke. So anyway, as I was sitting there, I for some reason had a brain flash where I remembered an article I had read years ago that could explain this phenomenon. I looked it up and found not one but two studies were done to this effect. So, the reason?

People lose the ability to comprehend humor as they age.

You can read the articles here and here, but here's the broad strokes. First of all, as one of the articles clarifies, older adults experience no decrease in their appreciation of humor. If they get the joke, they still laugh and enjoy it. Where it gets tricky is humor comprehension, which one of the authors defines as "the ability to cognitively or intellectually understand humorous material, which may be assessed by the ability of the responder to select appropriate punch lines to jokes or provide appropriate logical reasoning as to why a stimulus is humorous." Here's an example: say I provide you with two statements and ask you to pick which one is supposed to be funny. The statements are:

Marriage isn't a word, it's a sentence!
I got married last June.

Now, even if you don't actually find the first statement funny, you can understand that it is designed to be humorous. That's the ability that decreases as people get older. So when those theater patrons laughed at the toilet, they probably genuinely believed that it was supposed to be a joke.

I'm taking some leaps of logic here in applying research from written statements and drawings to films, but I feel that it makes sense and can help explain a lot. So next time you are stuck in a theater with hyena-like elderly patrons, just pat them on the back and say you're sorry for their brain decay. Kidding!

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