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Saturday, July 14, 2007

“Research says” – don’t you believe it

A couple of bits of ‘research’ about the 50-plus have recently been published that the press have picked up chewed around, attached a catchy headline and blurted out.

Let’s start with the - “Grumpy old people can't help it”'

This is the title of an article on the BBC web site. Similar headlines can be found on countless other web sites.

The BBC tells us that: “Scientists have found, in a study by Washington University that found older people find it harder to understand jokes than students”.

Apparently, older adults, because they have “deficits in some cognitive areas” may have a harder time understanding what a joke is about

To add authority and gravitas to the conclusions we learn the results are published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

And so another “well known fact” passes into the archive of human knowledge. No doubt the headline will be re-quoted time and time again by journalists who haven’t the faintest idea how the research was conducted, what the results really said and what caveats encircled the conclusions.

Here are a couple of the questions used to in the research. See how you get on.

A business man is riding the underground after a hard day at the office. A young man sits down next to him and says, “Call me a doctor . . . call me a doctor.”

The businessman asks, “What’s the matter, are you sick?”

The young man says one of the following statements:

1. “I just graduated from medical school.”

2. “Yes I feel a little weak. Please help me.”

3. “My sister is a nurse.”

4. The young man pulls out a water gun and squirts it at the businessman.

So what is the correct humorous answer?

Easy? So what is the next humorous picture in the sequence – 1, 2, 3 or 4?



These little gems come from the “Joke and Story Completion Test (1983)” that was used to test the sample’s ability to understand humour.

Answers ‘1’ are correct in both examples.

I cannot believe that a bunch of academics, on the evidence from this research, could come to the conclusion that: “older adults have greater difficulty with humour comprehension due to age related cognitive decline”.

Why can am I so critical?

Firstly the magnitude of the scoring. The difference between young and old was 6% in choosing the ‘correct’ punchline and 14% when selecting the ‘correct’ cartoon strip. Even assuming this test is half decent that doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me.

The average age of the ‘old’ group was 78.3 years and the ‘young’ 19.8 years. I am amazed that the results are a close as they are considering the extremes of age.

As was pointed out by Dr Chris Moulin, a cognitive neurophysiologist at the University of Leeds: it was "entirely feasible" that people's understanding of jokes could change with age.

I think the most damning inditement of the research is the premise that there is a single ‘correct’ humorous answer. Like all of these types of tests there is the answer you think that the tester thought was correct and the one you prefer. I suspect some of the older people in the sample thought all of the answers were bloody stupid and started ticking like fury to get to the end and get their free cup of tea and biscuits.

The second example inverts the conclusions – “ Survey findings which show that the over 50s who grew up committing more to memory report better memory performance in many areas than those under 30 who are heavily reliant on technology to act as their day to day aide memoir.”

This startling conclusion came from a bit of research to launch Puzzler Brain Trainer Magazine. So what if young people can’t remember telephone numbers – I bet there are lots of other things that are important to them that they can remember.

Did the research look at the difference in memory of a 50 and a 20 year old who both use electronic diaries/contact lists to see if there was any difference in their memory capability – I bet it didn’t.

Academics are seeking citations and companies want PR by pouring out a stream of dubious research that the media is all too happy to gobble up without looking at the details and applying a jot of critical judgement. I suppose the only good thing is that most people don’t believe a word the media dishes out.

Since publishing this post there was a great article in the Telegraph, by a doctor ,making many of the same points but also pointing out what the article says about our attitude to age.
But that doesn't matter, because it's what it exposes about our attitudes to old people that is interesting.

It (the article) plays on the prejudices we have in Western society about older people. It's attempting to uphold a stereotypical view of the old: that they are grumpy, miserable and out of touch.

It is widely accepted in academic circles that you can prove pretty much anything that you want if the correct sample is selected, the right questions are asked and so on. That a particular piece of research is undertaken is, in itself, a reflection on society.
Dick Stroud

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