Sarcasm: A New Path to Creativity? (No, Really)

Last Updated Aug 1, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

A new study appearing in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that snarky co-workers may be doing your workplace an important service-increasing everyone's creativity. The research was highlighted in a blog run by the British Psychological Society.

The research, conducted by a team led by Bar-Ilan University's Ella Miron-Spektor, confirms the widely-held belief that being the subject of someone's anger can actually help you concentrate on certain types of tasks. (If your boss yells at you and tells you to buckle down, generally, you do what he or she says.) But anger doesn't help at all when it comes to more creative tasks that require open, lateral thinking. One solution: A dose of sarcasm.

Anger versus sarcasm
The researchers asked 375 engineering students to pretend they were customer service agents. The students first listened to a recorded conversation between another customer service agent and a customer who was either neutral or hostile. In some of the conversations, the angry customer was sarcastic rather than openly hostile. The students were then asked to complete a straightforward problem-solving task or one that required more creativity.
  • Anger helps with analytic problem solving. People who heard an angry conversation did better at the more analytic problem.
  • Anger hinders creativity. People who heard the angry conversation did worse at the more creative problem.
  • Sarcasm may help creativity. People who heard the sarcastic conversation did the best at creative problem-solving. It could be that the humor of sarcasm made the 'anger' less threatening. Also, just listening to sarcasm, and figuring out the true intent of the speaker, might get the brain thinking in a more creative way.
Why Yelling Doesn't Work
The researchers say that people who are exposed to anger tend to adopt a "prevention orientation." They focus very narrowly, "relying on systematic and detailed information rather than general criteria when making a decision," say the researchers. The goal is to solve the immediate problem and avoid any future outbursts.
Miron-Spektor's research suggests that managers should pay close attention to the overall atmosphere of their companies, not just the treatment of individual workers at the hands of their bosses. Remember, none of the participants in the study were yelled at themselves or had sarcasm directed at them. They heard it being leveled at other people-people they didn't even know. But just hearing an angry outburst, not even in person, was enough to shut down some of their creative abilities.
Can sarcasm make a workplace more creative? Or do you prefer a more direct style of communication?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user saragoldsmith
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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