There’s an episode in the first season of The Office in which Michael Scott, the tactless boss, is asking his female employees to serve as cheerleaders for an upcoming company basketball game. When the heavyset Phyllis says she’ll do it, Michael reflexively says, “Oh yuck, that’s worse than you playing.” He then tries to rescue the crack with, “because we need you as an alternate.”
According to a new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, this type of humor is exactly the kind you should never deploy around the elderly.
Jennifer Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Akron, had 30 young adults, 22 middle-aged people, and 29 senior citizens watch a variety of different sitcom clips, including the above segment from The Office. The subjects rated how socially appropriate and how funny they found each clip. Stanley also used facial electromyography to determine how much the clips caused their smile muscles to move.
And for the record, “to be coded as a smile, there had to be an upturn of the corners of the lips plus a wrinkling of the crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, or a pushing up of the cheeks."
What the authors found was that older adults were much less likely to be fans of the aggressive style of humor—laughing at the expense of others—that’s so often used by Michael Scott. The 64-to-84-year-olds found The Office clip about 23 percent less funny than the middle-aged people did, and about 19 percent less funny than the 17-to-21-year-olds did.