While sarcasm – a type of wit that isn’t always easy to distinguish from contempt – has long been associated with superior intellect, researchers haven‘t been clear on which direction does the causal link flow, or whether it really has anything to do with creativity.
Now, however, new research by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, and Li Huang of INSEAD Business School, finds that sarcasm is far more nuanced than thought before, and offers some important psychological and organisational benefits.
Both expressing and decoding sarcasm requires a certain level of abstract thinking, required to overcome the psychological distance between the literal and the actual meaning of a sarcastic remark – a process that facilitates creativity in both parties involved.
To reach the conclusion, Gino, Galinsky and Huang conducted a series of experiments, whereby they randomly assigned the study subjects to one of three conditions: sarcastic, sincere of neutral. As part of a simulated conversation task, the participants then had to express something sarcastic or sincere, receive a sarcastic or sincere reply, or have a neutral exchange.
Lo and behold, those who found themselves dishing out and/or receiving sarcastic quips performed better on subsequent creativity tasks, prompting the research team to speculate that sarcasm “has the potential to catalyse creativity in everyone”, although it’s also possible that sarcasm is a product of naturally creative people, rather the other way around.
Another important finding of the study, largely missing in most other work on the same topic, pertains to the context that sarcasm is exchanged in – the better acquainted people are, the lower the chances that “snide” comments will result in hurt feelings or acrimonious bickering. In other words, while previous research has clearly shown that sarcasm is disruptive of smooth communication, a friendly back-and-forth is actually beneficial with regard to creative output.
But which type of sarcasm are we really talking about here, anyway? Sarcastic criticism? Sarcastic compliments? Sarcastic banter? To answer this question, we’re going to need much more than one study.
Professor Gino hopes the new findings will “inspire organizations and communication coaches to take a renewed look at sarcasm”, meaning instruction on the appropriate circumstances for sharing sarcastic observations. “By doing so, both the individuals involved in sarcastic conversations and the organizations they belong to would benefit creatively.”
Until that has been cleared up, however, it would probably do us all good to address our witticisms only to those who are likely to “get” them.
The paper was published this past week in the journal Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes.