Sarcasm Can Boost Creativity According to Research From Harvard & Columbia Business Schools

bill murray sarcasm

Under­ly­ing image by Gage Skid­more.

Echo­ing Bill Mur­ray, the Urban Dic­tio­nary defines sar­casm as “your body’s nat­ur­al defense against stu­pid,” not­ing that it’s “the high­est form of wit” in coun­tries like the UK, but the low­est in Amer­i­ca, owing to the population’s inabil­i­ty to detect whether or not one is being sar­cas­tic.

Idiot: I beat up a ten-year-old today.

You: (with a hint of sar­casm) That’s impres­sive!

Idiot: I know, right!

A new study by Francesca GinoAdam Galin­sky, and Li Huang, of Har­vard, Colum­bia and INSEAD busi­ness schools, respec­tive­ly, sug­gests that the use of sar­casm pro­motes cre­ativ­i­ty for those on the giv­ing and receiv­ing end of sar­cas­tic exchanges.

Gino told the Har­vard Gazette, “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.”

Galin­sky added, the givers and receivers in sar­cas­tic exchanges “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.” “That being said, although not the focus of our research, it is pos­si­ble that nat­u­ral­ly cre­ative peo­ple are also more like­ly to use sar­casm, mak­ing it an out­come instead of [a] cause in this rela­tion­ship.”

The evi­dence cer­tain­ly seems sol­id in the hands of mas­ter prac­ti­tion­ers such as Louis CK, Sarah Sil­ver­man, and the staff of The Onion, not to men­tion new­com­er Shirley Jester, an ani­mat­ed Sar­cas­tic Foul-Mouthed Teenage Come­di­an Girl from the Renais­sance.

Things get a bit murki­er when ama­teurs attempt to adopt their idols’ caus­tic pos­es. Tone and intent are eas­i­ly mis­con­strued. Feel­ings get hurt.

Is sar­casm best left to the pro­fes­sion­als?

Not nec­es­sar­i­ly. Gino and Galinksy found that the degree of trust between express­er and recip­i­ent deter­mines how sar­casm is received. In oth­er words, know your audi­ence.

Even at its mean­est, sarcasm—from the Greek and Latin for “to tear flesh”—involves abstrac­tion, a hall­mark of cre­ative think­ing.

Mean­while, you can review Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gist Chris Ful­ton’s “Try that again method,” below, one of many strate­gies for han­dling “sar­cas­tic and sassy teenagers.” Cre­ativ­i­ty be squelched.

Cue a mil­lion teenage eye rolls, and check out Gino and Galinksy’s find­ings here.

via the Har­vard Gazette

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

The Psy­chol­o­gy of Messi­ness & Cre­ativ­i­ty: Research Shows How a Messy Desk and Cre­ative Work Go Hand in Hand

The Most “Intel­lec­tu­al Jokes”: Our Favorite Open Cul­ture Read­er Sub­mis­sions

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