Want to Boost Creativity? Try Clever Put Downs

Last Updated Aug 4, 2011 8:20 AM EDT

For all the brilliance of science, from groundbreaking advances to subtle but effective nudges, sometimes a set of researchers emerge from the lab with nothing more than the blindingly obvious. For example, how about the recent finding, reported on the BPS Occupational Digest, that seeing someone in the office red in the face with anger and berating some unfortunate third party causes people to be less creative? Not exactly a shocker, right?

The researchers, like the rest of us, conclude that the sheer terror of seeing angry outbursts and imagining they might be directed at us, causes the brain to go into a bunker-like mode of self-preservation. When you're thinking with your lizard brain, obviously you're not going to be your most innovative. Or as the BPS blog put it more scientifically:
Observed anger causes participants to adopt more of a prevention orientation, a state in which you adopt a narrow focus on immediate concerns in the hope of avoiding suffering and gaining security.
The study of the effects of anger, which was carried out on 375 engineering students, could have simply been a less than shocking reminder to bosses that anger and threats are not an ideal method for bringing out the creative genius of your team. But as my colleague Kimberly Weisul recently reported, the researchers, led by an Israeli psychologist, went further, also investigating something else that might surprise you.

Shouting and berating others dampens creativity, but what if the angry party actually applied a little creativity and expressed her displeasure using a bit of barbed sarcasm? Strangely, not only did clever sniping not repress creativity in observers, it actually boosted it. That's right, watching a boss or co-worker play the smart aleck actually improved people's creative problem solving.
Another study added a further condition that presented a recorded exchange that was sarcastic rather than overtly hostile, using withering phrases like "Your service is 'fast as a turtle'". Participants in this condition actually performed the best on the creative problem. The researchers suspected that the humor of sarcasm makes it less overtly threatening, hence less likely to trigger prevention orientation.

Additionally, sarcastic comments need to be actively made sense of, as they stand at odds with the true situation, such as giving high praise to mediocrity. Parsing such paradoxes by looking at them in different ways might kick us into a mental gear ready for complex thinking.
So if you're on a creative team and really, really need to vent a bit of frustration, research suggests the solution is obvious. Skip the screaming and opt for clever, humorous insults instead.

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user unleashthebeauty, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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