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Sarcasm: How the 'lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative

A study has found that a healthy dose of sarcastic comments is healthy

Roger Dobson
Sunday 26 July 2015 01:04 BST
Posters mocking the English cricket team are seen around Melbourne in the lead up to the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup
Posters mocking the English cricket team are seen around Melbourne in the lead up to the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup (Getty)

Well, that’s just great. Sarcasm, often derided as the lowest form of wit, actually makes people brighter and more creative.

People on the receiving end of sarcastic comments – and those who made them – were found to be up to three times more creative in a range of tests carried out by a team of researchers from Insead, one of the world’s leading business schools, and Harvard and Columbia universities.

According to the study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes journal, a good dose of sarcasm is healthy because making and understanding sarcastic comments forces the brain to switch to abstract thinking, which boosts creativity. Researchers warn that management strategies designed to eliminate sarcasm from workplaces may have detrimental effects on productivity and profits.

Dr Li Huang, who led the research, said: “We found that sarcasm may stimulate creativity, the generation of ideas, insights, or problem solutions that are novel and useful. As Oscar Wilde believed, sarcasm may represent a lower form of wit, but we found that it certainly catalyses a higher form of thought.”

Although sarcasm is the most common from of verbal irony and is widely used to convey thinly disguised disapproval, contempt and scorn, little or no research has been carried out on its effects.

The researchers carried out a number of studies involving more than 300 men and women. Each was designed to test the effects on subsequent creativity of making and receiving sarcastic comments.

One of the experiments involved people being exposed to sarcastic or sincere comment and then faced with a psychological test involving creativity. They were shown a picture of several objects – a candle, a box of nails and pack of matches – placed on a table next to a wall.

The participants were told to work out how to attach the candle to the wall so that it would burn without dripping wax on to the table. The correct solution involves emptying the nails out of the box, nailing the box to the wall and placing the candle inside. The test is considered a measure of creativity, because it requires the ability to see objects as having other uses than their primary function.

Results show that 75 per cent of those who had been the butt of sarcastic comments came up with the right solution, compared with 25 per cent who had been exposed to sincere comments. Some 64 per cent of those who made sarcastic comment were correct too, compared with 30 per cent of a control group.

“We have shown that creativity is enhanced following all types of sarcasm, from sarcastic anger and criticism to sarcastic compliments and banter,” the researchers said. “All forms of sarcastic exchanges, not just sarcastic anger or criticism, seem to exercise the brain more.” They believe this is because understanding sarcasm requires understanding contradictory statements, for example “don’t work too hard” said to someone who is clearly resting.

This puts the brain into abstract thinking mode, and the researchers said that there is decades of work to show that abstract thinking increases creativity.

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