Study Shows Sarcasm Helps Boost Creativity

August 1, 2011

Workers arguing at the officeWhat's the best way to boost creativity? According to a new study, anger with a bit of sarcasm should do the trick.

As reported by The Washington Post researchers analyzed how various emotions that people observed affected productivity in the workplace. The study revealed that those who were exposed to tough sarcasm performed better on creative problems than those who were exposed to openly hostile or neutral emotions.

According to BPS Occupational Digest, researchers conducted three studies in which 375 engineering students were asked to imagine they were a customer service agent and complete a written problem. Before working on the task, however, participants listened to conversations between another service agent and a customer that were either neutral, overtly hostile or sarcastic. Students who listened to hostile conversations performed better at problems that were analytic and did not require additional insight, but worse at problems that required lateral thinking and discovery. According to researchers, observed anger caused participants to focus strictly on immediate priorities in order to avoid suffering.

Students who listened to sarcastic discussions, however, performed the best on the problem. Researchers suspected that this happened because the hint of humor made the situation less threatening and offset some of the damage anger could have done. Additionally, sarcastic comments require listeners to actively make sense of the situation. This in turn seemed to encourage more complex thinking, making participants approach and evaluate situations from different perspectives.

As The Washington Post pointed out, while some level of anger can push people to work harder, it is important to note that too much anger can backfire in the workplace. Likewise, organizations where people did not express frustrations can be equally as harmful as organizations where people express too much frustration.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin


"Creativity dampened by observing anger, but enhanced by sarcasm,", July 28, 2011

"How sarcasm can boost creativity,", August 1, 2011, Jena McGregor

"Others' anger makes people work harder not smarter: The effect of observing anger and sarcasm on creative and analytic thinking,", May 16, 2011

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