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A sense of humour

06 March 2008

Children can distinguish jokes from mistakes as early as 19 months old, Cardiff University research has shown.

Dr Merideth Gattis from the School of Psychology, along with PhD student Elena Hoicka investigated whether 19-36 month old children can differentiate mistakes from jokes and understand humorous intentions.

As part of the experiment, the researchers performed a number of actions with familiar household objects. Some of the actions were unambiguous jokes, such as putting a shoe on their hand, and were accompanied by laughter, and some of the actions were unambiguous mistakes, such as writing with the wrong end of a pen, accompanied by the word "Whoops!"

They also carried out a variety of actions which were more ambiguous, and could be either a joke or a mistake, depending on whether laughter or "Whoops!" accompanied the action.

The children were then given an opportunity to play with the objects, but were not given any instructions about what to do with them.

The findings showed that children as young as 19 months old copied unambiguous jokes, but corrected unambiguous mistakes, thus differentiating between the two. Only 25-36 month old children could correctly differentiate between ambiguous actions on the basis of intention.

Dr Merideth Gattis of the School of Psychology said: "Our findings reveal that as early as 19-months-old, children are able to distinguish between someone doing something wrong intentionally and doing something wrong accidentally on the basis of knowledge about conventional actions with objects. You can put a boot on the wrong foot accidentally, but putting a boot on your hand is so different from what you normally do with a boot, it must be a joke.

"In addition, children from the age of two are able to distinguish jokes and mistakes on the basis of intention alone. This finding is significant because it is the earliest demonstration of children understanding that people can intend to do the wrong thing. Children develop an understanding of humorous intentions before they understand intentions to pretend or lie, so understanding humour could be the first step in learning to do the wrong thing."

The research ‘Do the wrong thing: How toddlers tell a joke from a mistake’ is published in the journal Cognitive Development.