“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.