CULTURE & ARTS
07/29/2015 09:29 am ET

You're More Creative When You're Sarcastic, Says Study

In case you needed an excuse to be a smart aleck.

Academic studies can be fascinating ... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

Sarcasm doesn't always land well. Comedians like Sarah Silverman and Trevor Noah have come under fire for jokes gone awry (or misunderstood, depending on where your tastes lie), and some psychologists even equate sarcasm to "bullying." If the line between harmless fun and hostile snark can often be thin, why take the risk?

For one, sarcasm can be pretty damn funny. And now, researchers have identified actual cognitive benefits to being sarcastic. 

The Setup

To find this out, researchers from Harvard University, Columbia University and INSEAD conducted four different experiments. For the first three, participants were divided into one of five groups wherein they were either the expresser or the recipient of sarcasm or sincerity. "Sarcasm" was defined as "expressing the opposite of what one thinks or feels with the intention of communicating one's true meaning." So the groups were: expressing-sarcasm, receiving-sarcasm, expressing-sincerity, receiving-sincerity or a control condition that was neither sarcastic or sincere. The fourth experiment used similar groupings in regard to sarcasm/sincerity, but had an element of trust/distrust for the hypothetical prompt deliverer. 

Based on those groupings, participants completed a specific conversation exercise, depending on the experiment. For example, the first experiment had participants write replies to prompts. Those in the expressing-sarcasm group replied to a prompt by writing the first sarcastic reply that came to mind, and those in the receiving-sarcasm group were told to imagine that the prompt was delivered sarcastically and they then provided the first reply that came to mind.

After the conversation exercises, participants completed various creativity tests, including a word association exercise and the Duncker Candle Problem. The third study also tested participants' abstract thinking skills after the sarcastic or sincere exchange through an established test that showed whether they were more likely to describe words (like "voting") either concretely ("marking a ballot") or abstractly ("influencing the election").

The Findings

All four experiments found that sarcastic remarks led both the expressers and recipients to be more creative. The sarcastic exchange didn't even have to be particularly clever -- the creative boost was seen no matter what the hypothetical conversation looked like. The third study, the only one to test for abstract thinking, delved a bit deeper, finding that expressing or receiving a sarcastic comment can jump-start a person's abstract thinking, which then leads to creativity. 

The Takeaway

As hostile as sarcasm can come off, it just might be a great brain exercise for those hoping to spark creativity.

This isn't such a crazy concept when you think about it. Crafting a statement that literally says one thing but purposefully conveys the opposite probably does take a little extra brain work than straightforward communication. And once your brain switches into sarcastic mode, it seems you can tap into all sorts of creativity sitting idly in there just waiting to be put to work.

So go forth and be your sarcastic, smart-alecky, creative self. No apologies.

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