Evan Agostini / AP
A new study suggests that being exposed to sarcastic remarks boosts creative thinking. Thanks a lot, Jon.
Here's an terribly "important" new finding: Hearing sarcastic remarks makes you more creative. Yeah, right.
Seriously, though: Israeli researchers found that when people overheard anger conveyed in a sarcastic way, they were better able to solve creative problems, according to a recent report in the Journal of Applied Psychology. (You can find the paper here, but you'll need to purchase it. How convenient.)
In one experiment, researchers recruited 184 Israeli undergrads, all engineering students, and had them listen to one of three versions of a fake customer service center phone call. In each conversation, a customer called to complain about cell phone service problems -- the "customer's" speech was either angry ("Your service is extremely inefficient! You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.! This is an outrage!"), sarcastic ("Your service is 'fast as a turtle.' You make deliveries only between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. These hours are just 'perfect' for working people.") or neutral.
After eavesdropping on these pretend exchanges, the participants were asked to solve a series of problems -- some creative, some analytic. Here's an example of a creative question:
A room has three light switches. You can switch them on and off as you wish and then go to another room where there are three light bulbs. How can you identify which switch belongs to which light bulb? You cannot return to the room with the switches, the wall between the rooms is sealed, and the door is closed.
And an analytical question:
Together three employees were paid $750. The first employee received twice as much as the second employee and $50 less than the third employee. How much money did each of the employees receive?
The results? "Observing anger enhanced analytic problem solving, but hindered the solving of creative problems," write Dorit Efrat-Treister, Anat Rafaeli and Orit Scwarz-Cohen, all of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, along with Ella Miron-Spektor of Bar-Ilan University. They add that "observing sarcasm improved the solving of creative problems."
Understanding sarcasm involves a bit of complex thinking on our part -- the phrase "yeah, right," when said in a sarcastic tone, can't be taken at face value. (Duh.)
In the report, the researchers explain, "Sarcastic expressions of anger, in contrast to direct expressions, can have a positive effect on complex thinking and on solving of creative problems. The incongruent information inherent in sarcasm appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger."
The real-life implications of this research might apply to the office, or your home life: If you're angry, you might want to express your fury with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
"We suggest that displays of anger in organizations require close scrutiny because their effects may backfire: Displays intended to lead to improvements may actually hamper employee performance, if employee tasks require complex and creative thinking," explain the researchers. "The potentially positive effects of sarcastic expressions suggests that with some irony and humor, an anger-evoking situation can be turned into better employee performance even if the problem at hand is complex."
If that doesn't work, you can always try an episode of "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report."
Do you find sarcasm is sometimes an effective way to communicate?
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.
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