Life & Culture

Funny or Not? It Might Depend on How Old You Are.

Do you find this clip from the show “Golden Girls” funny?




How about this clip, from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?




If your comedy tastes are consistent with the results of a study that’s been getting a lot of play in the media this past week, you will have said not funny to the “Golden Girls” clip and funny to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Researchers at University of Akron showed these and other clips from popular sit-coms to groups of young, middle aged and older adults and measured their responses. For each clip, they asked whether the behavior in it was socially appropriate and whether the clip was funny. They also recorded facial expressions – the upturned lips and other signs of amusement.

Other TV shows sampled in the study were “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office.”

The results? Overwhelmingly, the younger the viewers, the more they appreciated the type of humor found in the Mr. Bean clip – what study lead Jennifer Stanley calls “aggressive humor” where you laugh at someone’s else’s expense. The older the viewers, the less funny they found aggressive humor and the more they went along with “affiliative” humor, where you laugh along with others about shared experiences.

The most divisive clip was this one, from “The Office,” which scored a resounding NO from the older participants.


The study was published recently in the Journal of Psychology and Aging.

Psychologist Rod Martin defined “Affiliative” and “aggressive” humor in 2003, along with “self deprecating” and “self enhancing” humor. His definitions and Humor Styles Questionnaire have become gold standards. Martin analyzed how each style benefits or harms us and syncs with specific personality types. He described aggressive humor as counter productive and divisive; affiliative humor, which relies on making fun of things we can all laugh at safely, as inclusive and benign; self-deprecating humor, where you make jokes at your own expense, as self-protective; and self-enhancing humor, where you put down someone else to make yourself feel better, as stress-relieving but ultimately not productive.

Stanley found that younger viewers also preferred self-deprecating humor, while older viewers preferred self-enhancing humor.

So, what did Stanley’s humor study tell us about ourselves – and does the preference of older people in her study for constructive over destructive humor signify a change in our style of humor as we age, or a generational divide – in other words, will today’s young people still ROTFL when they’re watching “The Office” 30 years from now?

Stanley clearly prefers the latter explanation – we prefer humor that bonds us as we age because we need to to. She told the Atlantic that declining cognitive faculties, physical ailments and the loss of friends who pass away are setbacks; “Other work has shown the importance of having people close by you when you experience the physical and emotional loss of aging. Maybe affiliative humor is more helpful for promoting that type of experience.”

What do you think? Has your sense of humor changed? And if so, do you really think it’s because a gentler style of humor helps you cope with “the losses of aging”? We’re curious – tell us in the comments section below. Then take the Humor Styles Questionnaire and share your results.


4 responses to “Funny or Not? It Might Depend on How Old You Are.

  1. Hm. I (age 66) have always preferred affiliative humor, both in youth and now in age. My father, born 1919, loved aggressive humor, both as a young man and at the age of 83.

    I wonder whether different “generations” have different senses of humor, and also would like to see more about the effects of gender on humor. If, e.g., women prefer affiliative humor, the fact that the older age ranges consist of more women than men could also have an effect.

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