Photo by Adrian Brockwell/500px/Getty Images
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” that connoisseur of witticisms, Oscar Wilde, is said to have remarked. But not everyone shares his view. Communication experts and marriage counselors alike typically advise us to stay away from this particular form of expression. The reason is simple: sarcasm carries the poisonous sting of contempt, which can hurt others and harm relationships. By its very nature, it invites conflict.
Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. It is the most common form of verbal irony—that is, allowing people to say exactly what they do not mean. Often we use it to humorously convey disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don't work so hard!” a boss might say, for example, on catching his assistant surfing the Web.
And yet behavioral scientists Li Huang of INSEAD business school, Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University and I have found that sarcasm may also offer an unexpected psychological payoff: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, appears to promote creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of the exchange. Instead of avoiding snarky remarks completely, our research suggests that, used with care and in moderation, clever quips can trigger creative sparks.
Saying What You Don't Mean
Early research into how people interpret sarcastic statements revealed, as one might expect, that most perceive such comments as critical compared with more direct utterances. In one study, published in 1997, 32 participants read scenarios in which, for instance, one person did something that could be viewed negatively, such as smoking, and 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”). Consistently, participants rated sarcasm to be more condemning than literal statements.
In 2000 University of Western Ontario researchers encouraged 66 students to read a scenario while imagining the perspective of a certain person in the story, such as the viewpoint of someone making a critical comment or the person receiving that comment. Although there was some disagreement on how these comments might affect the relationship between a speaker and listener, perspective taking did not alter anyone's understanding of the speaker's intentions, such as mockery or a desire to provoke anger.
And sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted, particularly when it is communicated electronically, according to a 2005 study by Jason Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng, both then psychologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and their colleagues. They gave 30 pairs of university students a list of statements, half of which were sarcastic and half serious. Some students relayed 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.
The e-mailers had anticipated that 78 percent of the participants would pick up on the sarcasm inherent in their messages. That is, they badly overestimated their ability to communicate the tenor of these statements via e-mail. And the recipients of the sarcastic e-mails were even more overconfident. They guessed they would correctly interpret the tone of the e-mail messages about 90 percent of the time. They were much better at gauging their ability to interpret voice messages.
Oh, the Irony!
In 2015 my colleagues and I discovered an upside to this otherwise negative picture of sarcasm. In one study, we asked 56 participants to choose a script that was sarcastic, sincere or neutral and then engage in simulated conversation with another subject, who was unaware of the script.
Immediately after our participants enacted the dialogue, we presented them with tasks testing their creativity. For instance, they had to think of a word that was logically linked to a set of three provided words (for example, “manners,” “round” and “tennis” linked to “table”). We also presented them with a short questionnaire about their perceived sense of conflict during the conversation.
Not surprisingly, the participants exposed to sarcasm reported more interpersonal conflict than those in other groups. More interestingly, those pairs who had engaged in a sarcastic conversation fared better on the creativity tasks. This effect emerged for both the deliverer and recipient in the simulated conversation but only when the recipient had picked up on the sarcasm in the script.
Why might verbal irony enhance creativity? Sarcasm’s challenge is that the message sounds serious but should not be taken literally. One way to overcome this is through tone—as when exaggerated speech indicates the facetiousness of a message. We need to think outside the box to generate and decipher ironic comments. That means sarcasm may lead to clearer, more creative thinking.
Abstract thinking also helps. In a variant of the previous experiment, we asked 114 students to take on a similar set of roles and tasks (either to listen to or to make sarcastic comments, then take on a creative challenge). But this time we also assessed the students' thinking through a test in which they had to associate a word with either an abstract or concrete action (for example, “voting” could pair with the concrete “marking a ballot” or the abstract “influencing the outcome of an election”). We found that generating or deciphering sarcastic statements occurred more readily when people were thinking abstractly, a state that also promotes creative thinking.
None of our findings negates the fact that sarcasm can damage relationships. So how do we harness its creative benefits without stirring up conflict? It comes down to trust. Our 2015 studies also showed that, given the same tone and content, sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we trust is less provocative than sarcasm from someone we distrust. Of course, if we were to vary the tone and content, it would make a difference, too. Even trust may not be enough to protect a friendship from an extremely harsh tone and cutting content.
Given the risks, your best bet is to keep conversational zingers limited to those you know well, lest you cause offense. But on occasions when you do enjoy such repartee, you may also boost your creative thinking. To borrow another quote from Wilde, “It is the critical spirit that creates.”
Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. She is the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). Twitter: @francescagino
Gareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
This article was originally published with the title "The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm" in SA Mind 27, 3, 20-21 (May 2016) doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0516-20