Toddlers can tell a joke from a mistake

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

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The finding is significant because it is the earliest demonstration of children understanding that people can intend to do the wrong thing.

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Dr Merideth Gattis from the School of Psychology, 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.

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Dr Gattis said: “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.”

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