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

Christina Pomareda (Corresponding Author), Auste Simkute (Corresponding Author), Louise H Phillips

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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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102865
Number of pages9
JournalActa Psychologica
Early online date20 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2019 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
We are grateful for the input of Megan Campbell and Ruth Filik in designing the stimuli, and we would like to thank Isla Donaldson and Hannah McDonald for carrying out some of the testing. Declarations of interest: none. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


  • non-literal language
  • old age
  • mental state attribution
  • positivity bias
  • sarcasm


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