Your Grandma Doesn’t Care for Mean Jokes

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Photo: ABC STUDIOS

How you feel about Michael Scott’s frequently awkward high jinks on The Office could depend on how old you are. New research shows that older adults, aged 60 to 80, don’t care much for “aggressive” humor — that is, jokes at another person’s expense.

And the clip they found least funny out of 14 they watched, as part of a new study just published in Psychology and Aging, was this one, in which Michael is mean to dear old Phyllis about her desire to be a cheerleader for the office basketball team:

It was a pretty small study, with just 24 young adults (aged 18 to 30) and 11 older adults. Participants watched and rated the hilarity of clips from sitcoms from the 1980s and 2000s, half of which contained a scene with humor involving some sort of social gaffe, and half of which didn’t.

Here are a couple more of the “social gaffe” clips they showed the study participants, because they’re funny and why not?

The Golden Girls try to buy condoms:

Jason Alexander won’t tell Larry David how much he left their waiter for a tip, which of course drives Larry crazy:

The young adults both rated these clips as funnier and smiled more while watching them compared to the older adults. After they watched the sitcom snippets, participants took a survey intended to reveal their preferred humor styles, and the young adults were also more likely to say they enjoyed “aggressive” humor — again, that’s essentially when you’re laughing at and not with someone — than the older adults. But, interestingly, the older adults were more likely to say they liked “self-enhancing” humor — that is, laughing at yourself — more than their younger counterparts.

It’s not clear exactly why these differences were observed, lead author Jennifer Stanley, a University of Akron assistant professor of psychology, said in an email. She elaborated thusly:

Because this study was a cross-sectional study, we cannot tease apart whether the effects are generational or developmental. They could be generational, in which case we would see that today’s young and middle-aged adults would enjoy aggressive humor more and rate inappropriate behavior as more appropriate when they are older adults – relative to the older adults in this study.

However, if the effects are developmental then it might suggest that the type of humor we prefer changes with each life stage to best equip us to handle the situations we encounter.

For example, the older adults also tended to like “affiliative” humor more than their younger counterparts; these are the kinds of jokes that bring people together, sometimes by easing tension. Stanley suggests this brand of humor “might be especially important when facing the social and physical losses associated with late adulthood.”

At any rate, somebody should probably tell the older study participants about the real-life twist from that scene from The Office: The actress Phyllis Smith was a member of the cheerleading team for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s. Phyllis really was a cheerleader!