Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. It is the most common form of verbal irony—that is, allowing people to say exactly what they do not mean. Often we use it to humorously convey disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don’t work so hard!” a boss might say, for example, on catching his assistant surfing the Web.
And yet behavioral scientists Li Huang of INSEAD business school, Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University and I have found that sarcasm may also offer an unexpected psychological payoff: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, appears to promote creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of the exchange. Instead of avoiding snarky remarks completely, our research suggests that, used with care and in moderation, clever quips can trigger creative sparks.
Why might verbal irony enhance creativity? Sarcasm’s challenge is that the message sounds serious but should not be taken literally. One way to overcome this is through tone—as when exaggerated speech indicates the facetiousness of a message. We need to think outside the box to generate and decipher ironic comments. That means sarcasm may lead to clearer, more creative thinking.
Given the risks, your best bet is to keep conversational zingers limited to those you know well, lest you cause offense. But on occasions when you do enjoy such repartee, you may also boost your creative thinking. To borrow another quote from Wilde, “It is the critical spirit that creates.”
We need to think outside the box to generate and decipher ironic comments.