The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm

Sarcastic comments boost creativity, a study finds

man with sarcastic expression

Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.
Credit: ©iStock

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” wrote that connoisseur of wit, Oscar Wilde. Whether sarcasm is a sign of intelligence or not, communication experts and marriage counselors alike typically advise us to stay away from this particular form of expression. The reason is simple: sarcasm expresses the poisonous sting of contempt, hurting others and harming relationships. As a form of communication, sarcasm takes on the debt of conflict.

And yet, our research suggests, there may also be some unexpected benefits from sarcasm: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, promotes creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of sarcastic exchanges. Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.

Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. The most common form of verbal irony, sarcasm is often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don’t work so hard!”, a boss might say upon catching his assistant surfing the Internet. Early research on sarcasm explored how people interpret statements and found that, as expected, sarcasm makes a statement sound more critical. In one laboratory study, participants read scenarios in which, for instance, (1) one person did something that could be viewed negatively, such as smoking, and (2) a second person commented on the behavior to the first person, either literally (“I see you don’t have a healthy concern for your lungs”) or sarcastically (“I see you have a healthy concern for your lungs”). Participants rated sarcasm to be more condemning than literal statements. In a similar study, participants were encouraged to empathize either with a person behaving in a way that could be construed as negative or with a second person commenting on the first person’s behavior. Both perspectives prompted participants to rate sarcastic comments by the second person as more impolite relative to literal comments.

Other research has show that sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted, particularly when communicated electronically. In one study, 30 pairs of university students were given a list of statements to communicate, half of which were sarcastic and half of which were serious. Some students communicated their messages via e-mail and others via voice recordings. Participants who received the voice messages accurately gleaned the sarcasm (or lack thereof) 73 percent of the time, but those who received the statements via e-mail did so only 56 percent of the time, hardly better than chance. By comparison, the e-mailers had anticipated that 78 percent of participants would pick up on the sarcasm inherent in their sarcastic statements. That is, they badly overestimated their ability to communicate the tenor of their sarcastic statements via e-mail. What’s more, the recipients of the sarcastic e-mails were also decidedly overconfident. They guessed they would correctly interpret the tone of the e-mails they received about 90 percent of the time. They were considerably less overconfident about their ability to interpret voice messages.

In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered an upside to this otherwise gloomy picture of sarcasm. In one study, we assigned some participants to engage in either simulated sarcastic, sincere, or neutral dialogues by choosing from pre-written responses on a sheet of paper. Others were recipients of these different types of messages from others. Immediately after participants engaged in these “conversations,” we presented them with tasks testing their creativity. Not surprisingly, the participants exposed to sarcasm reported more interpersonal conflict than those in other groups. More interestingly, those who engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on creativity tasks. The processes involved in initiating and delivering a sarcastic comment improved the creativity and cognitive functioning of both the commenter and the recipient. This creativity effect only emerged when recipients picked up on the sarcasm behind the expresser’s message rather than taking mean comments at face value.

Why might sarcasm enhance creativity? Because the brain must think creatively to understand or convey a sarcastic comment, sarcasm may lead to clearer and more creative thinking. To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking. Consider the following example, which comes from a conversation one of my co-authors on the research (Adam Galinsky, of Columbia) had a few weeks before getting married. His fiancée woke him up as he was soundly asleep at night to tell him about some new ideas she has for their upcoming wedding next month –many of which were quite expensive. Adam responded with some ideas of his own: “Why don’t we get Paul McCartney to sing, Barack Obama to give a benediction and Amy Schumer to entertain people.” His comment required his fiancée to recognize that there is a distinction between the surface level meaning of the sentence (actually signing up these people to perform) and the meaning that was intended.

This is not the first set of studies showing that creativity can be boosted by things that would commonly be considered creativity killers. In one series of studies, for example, researchers found that moderate noise can be an untapped source of creativity, providing a welcome distraction that helps the brain make disparate associations. In addition, alcohol is believed to aid creativity, up to a point, by reducing focus and relaxing the mind.

Sarcasm can be interpreted negatively, and thus cause relationship costs. So, how do we harness its creative benefits without creating the type of conflict that can damage a relationship? It comes down to trust. Our studies show that, given the same content and tone, sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we trust is less conflict provoking than sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we distrust. Of course, if we were to vary the tone and content, it would make a difference too – given an extremely harsh tone and critical content, even trust might not be enough.

Given the risks and benefits of sarcasm, your best bet is to keep salty remarks limited to conversations with those you know well, lest you offend others—even as you potentially help them think more creatively.

 

FIVE HABITS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE

WHETHER IT’S GETTING INTO A ROUTINE OR KNOWING WHEN TO GIVE UP, HERE ARE THE HABITS CREATIVE PEOPLE HAVE CULTIVATED.

There is no secret trick to becoming more creative, but the good news is creativity is a skill you can build.

That means that you can become more creative with the right time and effort. Whenever you are picking up a new skill, though, it is good to find role models who have the abilities you want and to follow their lead.

Over the past 10 years, I have written quite a bit about creativity. Along the way, I have encountered the stories of a number of individuals who have inspired me to think about what it takes to improve my own creative abilities. These individuals have been able to solve problems (both practical and artistic) in new ways. Here are five habits that emerge from their efforts.

THEY STUDY THE DETAILS.

A number of people I have talked to have worried that their ability to be creative might be hampered by knowing too much. They feel like having too much knowledge will curse them into sticking with their routines.

Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve. When Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo were trying to create a swimsuit that would help swimmers shave seconds off their times, they looked at all kinds of ways to reduce the forces of drag. Their final design drew from many different sources including the structure of shark skin and the use of stretch materials that decreased swimmer’s muscle vibrations.

Similarly, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that pesky cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after going out for a walk. He studied the cockleburs under a microscope and found that they stuck so persistently because tiny hooks on the seed would get caught in the dog’s tangled fur. Using this principle, he had cloth manufacturers create synthetic cocklebur hooks and dog fur and invented Velcro.

THEY HAVE DEVELOPED A DISCIPLINED ROUTINE.

The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently.

A classic example of this type is the prolific authorStephen King. If ever there was someone whose work would fit the expected output of a tortured soul, it would be King’s. Yet, he has talked often about the role of routines in his work. He writes every morning. As he points out, routines for creativity are just as important as routines for sleeping. You cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.

THEY REALIZE THAT EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT

As a college professor, my least favorite question asked by students is: “Will this be on the exam?” The answer to that question is always: “Yes, but it may not be my exam.” That is because you never know what the source of a great idea is going to be. The stories behind creative ideas are fascinating to read, but they are only clear in retrospect.

For example, James Dyson’s inspiration for the bagless vacuum cleaner came from his knowledge of the industrial cyclones used to clear the air in sawmills. When Dyson’s curiosity led him to learn about sawmills, he could not have known that knowledge would form the basis of a multimillion dollar company.

A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.

THEY CONSIDER THE TIMING.

Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.

Consider the great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Davis cut his musical teeth during the bebop era. Bebop was characterized by fast flurries of notes played with technical precision over fast chord changes. He began to react against this style in recordings starting in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the world was ready for the sound that characterized albums like Birth Of The Cool (which was released well after it was recorded) and Kind Of Blue, which had an enormous impact both on listeners and other players.

By the late 1960s, Davis was ready to react against the prevailing context again with his early fusion album Bitches Brew. The key to the success of these works was an understanding of the system in which they were being recorded and heard.

On the technical side of innovation, Steve Jobs was a master at understanding the role of the system. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market. Jobs thought deeply about the user and the situation in which the iPod would be used. The attention to the context in which the device would be employed led to the parallel development of iTunes, which made the iPod a true plug-and-play device.

THEY KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP

Finally, when you look at stories of creativity, it is easy to be seduced by the persistence of creative people. Not only did James Dyson take inspiration from far-flung sources, but he also spent years working on the prototype of the original Dyson vacuum.

There is a danger in drawing the lesson that creative people stick with every idea in order to see them through. Economists have the concept of a sunk cost. Sunk costs are the time, energy, and money that have already been invested in a project. Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.

Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have studied successful creative individuals (like academics who work at the forefront of their disciplines). The ones who are most successful in the long run are actually those who are willing to walk away from projects that are not succeeding, even when they have already put considerable effort into those projects. That is, creative success means knowing when to throw in the towel and move on to something else.