Both those who express and receive sarcasm think more creatively because of it, according to research.
Differing from conventional wisdom that sarcasm is only for tearing things down, the study, conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, and European business school Insead, found that the processes of formulating and deciphering sarcasm helps build creativity.
Francesca Gino, one of the authors of the study, said:
“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction (i.e., psychological distance) 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.”
In a series of four studies, the researchers measured participants’ responses to cognitive tasks after they engaged in either sarcastic, sincere or neutral conditions that they were randomly assigned to.
The tasks included Duncker’s candle problem, in which participants are given a matchbook and a box of thumbtacks and are tasked with fixing a candle to a wall so that when it is burned its wax does not drip onto the table or the floor. The solution involves pinning the box, emptied of its thumbtacks, to the wall and placing the candle upright in the box.
Participants who had either expressed or received sarcasm in their groups were more likely to solve the tasks than those who experienced sincere or neutral conditions.
Gino said the team’s findings suggest “sarcasm has the potential to catalyze creativity in everyone.” He also cautioned that it was possible that more creative people are also more likely to use sarcasm, “making it an outcome instead of [a] cause in this relationship.”
The researchers hope that their study will shine a light on the positive aspects of sarcasm in the workplace. Gino said:
“Instead of discouraging workplace sarcasm completely as they have been doing, they could help educate individuals about the appropriate circumstances under which sarcasm can be used. By doing so, both the individuals involved in sarcastic conversations and the organizations they belong to would benefit creatively.”