Apparently, some people in this world consider sarcasm the poor man’s substitute for thoughtful, sophisticated humor. I am not among them. In my mind, a well-timed remark, proffered in a Saltine-dry tone, elevates conversation, reveals a keen mind and keeps life interesting.
Was I looking for vindication? Nope. But, lucky me, research is on my side. Sarcasm, according to a study published last November in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, facilitates creativity.
Consider this lunchtime exchange with a coworker:
“Your lunch looks better than mine,” says Janice from Accounting, clutching a plate of last night’s spaghetti microwaved to within an inch of its life.
“Yes, I’m shocked my $15 made-to-order sandwich looks better than your nuked leftovers,” you reply.
Assuming you’ve delivered your sarcastic reply properly (that is, in a tone so dry it could survive in the Sahara), Janice from Accounting must account for both the content and context of your answer. Grasping non-literal meaning draws on a few different mental processes and requires a certain level of social perception.
But the cognitive burden doesn’t fall solely on the recipient. It takes an agile mind to serve up a snappy, ‘tude-laden comment without missing a beat. Given the mental demands associated with sarcasm, as reported on Psyblog, psychologists analyzed its impact on creative problem-solving. To do this, they split study participants into three groups and tasked them with simulating sarcastic, sincere or dispassionate conversations.
Those who took on sarcastic roleplay (both givers and takers) subsequently executed creative tasks more successfully. Based on this outcome, it seems that sarcasm acts as a mental warm-up for bursts of creativity. But, as researchers noted, it’s also possible that creative people are more sarcastic by nature. Unpacking the causal relationship between Daria-esque one-liners and industry-disrupting ingenuity requires further research.
There’s also the issue of sarcasm backfiring. Working with the wrong audience, sarcastic types can be seen as impeding communication because they refuse to shoot straight. But that’s not really news. Sarcastic jerks should be smart enough to be their true, eye-rolling selves only around the like-minded. Everyone else gets fake sincerity.