Age-related differences in the ability to decode intentions from non-literal language

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Older adults sometimes experience difficulty in decoding non-literal language, such as sarcastic statements where the underlying meaning differs from the literal words used. Given that sarcasm usually communicates a negative message this age effect might be explained by a positivity bias in old age. Here we test this for the first time by looking at age differences in interpreting non-literal compliments made with positive intention. However, another possibility is that older adults may fail to interpret such remarks correctly because these non-literal compliments are rarely encountered in everyday interactions. The aim of this study was therefore to compare younger and older adults' comprehension of positively and negatively valenced non-literal language. Forty younger and thirty-eight older adults read short story scenarios ending with a positive or negative, literal or non-literal evaluative appraisal of an event. Older adults were less likely than young to detect negatively valenced non-literal criticism and there were even more pronounced age-related differences in comprehending positive non-literal compliments. This indicates that age differences in understanding non-literal language are not driven by positivity biases. The relative rarity of non-literal compliments may have made these particularly difficult to interpret for both younger and older adults. Younger adults' performance indicated that non-literal language mutes perceived levels of critique and praise, while older adults' tendency to misinterpret non-literal language means that they may not benefit from this muting function. Potential implications for social interactions in older adulthood are discussed.




Pomareda, C., Simkute, A., & Phillips, L. H. (2019). Age-related differences in the ability to decode intentions from non-literal language. Acta Psychologica, 198.

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