If you grew up being told you have a “smart mouth,” your parents may have been on to something. A new study by Harvard University and Columbia University shows a link between sarcasm and creativity. Shocking. Researchers interacted with three groups of people who expressed themselves sarcastically, earnestly, and neutrally. They found that the sarcastic group showed “enhanced creativity” when asked to perform creative tasks, likely because both promote abstract thinking. Responding in a way that is not straightforward or literal requires one to think outside of what is expected, the same skill set used when using creativity to create art or problem solve. The downside? If you are expressing sarcasm to someone who doesn’t trust you, there’s a greater chance of creating conflict. Oh so that’s why Gandhi was always throwing shade to the British Empire with his hilarious throwdowns. Sarcasm can heighten conflict! Who knew?
Sarcasm requires a certain amount of intelligence from both the sender and receiver. The person making the sarcastic statement is thinking in a non-literal way and can read the social cues to know whether or not the person they are talking to will get it. The receiver has to make sense of what was said — read the tone; read the facial expressions; realize the person means the opposite; and react accordingly. It’s a high form of intelligence, as it requires both cerebral and social finesse. That’s why sarcasm over text or email is so often misunderstood, and why sarcasm from strangers leads to conflict: We can’t read you well enough to know what you mean.
Sarcasm isn’t just about being funny or off-kilter; it’s a way of helping you see your own truth. If I say something that is the opposite of what I mean as a way of saying what I think is true, it tends to make you ask what you think is true.
John Lennon is a great example of a creative, sarcastic, and brilliant thinker. His abstract thinking led to creative innovations both fantastic ("Tomorrow Never Knows") and questionable experiments ("Revolution 9"), and sarcasm that instigated conflict with critics, the American public, and the Nixon-era FBI. Lennon used humor to point to truth, the way great comedians often do (a phenomena I’ve previously written about). Sarcasm isn’t just about being funny or off-kilter; it’s a way of helping you see your own truth. If I say something that is the opposite of what I mean as a way of saying what I think is true, it tends to make you ask what you think is true. As the study pointed out, even those on the receiving end of the humorous remarks saw spikes in their creativity. Hearing other’s divergent thinking leads us to have our own divergent thinking, our own creativity, our own quest for truth.
So if you’re not funny, hang out with funny people. You’ll be more creative for it. As a great Kids in the Hall sketch once pointed out, sarcastic people are soooo lonely. And if you are prone to sarcasm, be careful about how you wield this double-edged sword. Seriously.
Stephen Fry tells of when a Mormon audience didn't appreciate a sarcastic remark about heaven. He was making a joke, but they clearly didn't see the humor in it.
Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mondadori/Mondadori Portfolio