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A Must-Read Story about a Really Fascinating Sarcasm Study

Oscar Wilde once observed, "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form if intelligence.”

| BY Donald Liebenson


A memorable “Saturday Night Live” sketch from its fifth season concerned the final episode of a talk show, “Heavy Sarcasm,” in which the usual talk show pleasantries and platitudes expressed by host and guests were given an acidic twist when delivered in voices dripping with sarcasm. A guest portrayed by Bill Murray (an expert practitioner of the form), expresses “sympathy” about the show’s cancellation” “Oh yeah, I know I never missed it. I don't know what I'm going to do with my Wednesday afternoons now.”

Sarcasm. Sure, it’s funny when Bill Murray employs it onscreen, but it can be maddening to those who are on the receiving end of a withering put-down administered by a smart aleck. Turns out, though, that writer Oscar Wilde may have been on to something when he observed, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form if intelligence.” A paper co-produced by the Harvard and Columbia business schools found that sarcasm is “a double-edged sword: despite its role in instigating conflict, it can also be a catalyst for creativity.”

The paper is entitled, “The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Expressers and Recipients” (Hey, Harvard; catchy title!)  Sarcasm, the paper notes, is ubiquitous in organizations. The researchers set out to test if both “the construction and interpretation of sarcasm lead to greater creativity because they activate abstract thinking.”

Sarcasm, from the Greek and Latin for “to tear flesh,” has been called “hostility disguised as humor.” Researchers Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, and Li Huang of INSEAD, the European business school, however, conclude that sarcasm is “far more nuanced, and actually offers some important, overlooked psychological and organizational benefits,” according to a statement.

“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction (i.e., psychological distance) between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking,” Gino was quoted in the statement.

In a series of experiments, participants were randomly assigned to conditions labeled sarcastic, sincere, or neutral. As part of a simulated conversation task, they then expressed something sarcastic or sincere, received a sarcastic or sincere reply, or had a neutral exchange. Two experiments found that those who expressed sarcasm and those on the receiving end of it reported more conflict, but also demonstrated enhanced creativity following a simulated sarcastic conversation or after recalling a sarcastic exchange. Another experiment found that when participants expressed sarcasm toward or received sarcasm from “a trusted other,” creativity increased but conflict did not.

“While most previous research seems to suggest that sarcasm is detrimental to effective communication because it is perceived to be more contemptuous than sincerity, we found that, unlike sarcasm between parties who distrust each other, sarcasm between individuals who share a trusting relationship does not generate more contempt than sincerity,” said Galinsky.

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.