Most people view sarcasm as the lowest form of wit; often seeing it as mocking or conveying contempt with someone. While it might be humorous from time to time, it’s also a pretty good way to vent your annoyance with the world — although it’s not a surefire strategy for building a good working relationship with your colleagues.
In fact, most career advisors would probably tell you to avoid sarcasm at the office. However, that way of thinking may be proven wrong.
Few studies have ever been done on the effects of sarcasm, which is why researchers from a host of top universities, including Harvard and Columbia, experimented with how sarcastic comments affect creativity.
Their findings, published in a study titled The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity Through Abstract Thinking for Both Expressers and Recipients, came up with some interesting observations. The study suggests that sarcasm doesn’t just make you happy, but it can also help you be more creative and successful.
The highest form of intelligence
Experiments involving more than 300 men and women tested their creativity by completing tasks after saying or receiving sarcastic comments. Another control group was asked to complete the same tasks after they were told sincere comments.
What did the researchers find?
Sarcasm, it turns out, is a pretty good mental workout. Those who gave and received sarcastic comments were three times more creative, because the sarcasm forced their brains to think abstractly, boosting creativity.
“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to 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,” explained Francesca Gino, who participated in the study.
64 percent of the people who made sarcastic comments were able to find a creative solution and complete the task.
However, those who were on the receiving end of comments did even better, with a completion rate of 75 percent.
These statistics stand in contrast to those who received sincere comments, in which only 30 percent of participants successfully completed the exercise.
“Those in the sarcasm conditions subsequently performed better on creativity tasks than those in the sincere conditions or the control condition. This suggests that sarcasm has the potential to catalyze creativity in everyone,” Adam Galinsky, another member of the research team, added.
So the next time you’re working with your colleagues on a creative task, sarcastic comments might make the whole team more creative.
Being sarcastic requires trust
While the results of the study are good news for those like me who are more sarcastically inclined, it shouldn’t be taken as a blank check to be sarcastic whenever the mood strikes you.
To keep from upsetting too many people, you need to restrict your remarks to contexts where trust has already been established. Unlike sarcasm between parties who distrust each other, sarcasm between individuals who share a trusting relationship doesn’t generate more contempt than sincerity.
In some of the few past studies there’s been evidence that things which would normally be seen as creativity killers can also unlock creativity. For example, researchers found that noise can provide a distraction for the brain in order focus on a particular task. In addition, alcohol is believed to make you more creative because it makes you less focused and frees the brain from the thoughts that occupy it.
“We have shown that creativity is enhanced following all types of sarcasm, from sarcastic anger and criticism to sarcastic compliments and banter. All forms of sarcastic exchanges, not just sarcastic anger or criticism, seem to exercise the brain more.”
In the end, it seems the more relaxed the brain is, the better able we are to think creatively. Just remember to consider the benefits and the risks. And hopefully your next sarcastic comment will help you to come up with a brilliant idea.