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.
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.
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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.