Sarcasm is considered an anathema in some work places: counterproductive and toxic to the office culture, and supposedly a sign of insecurity.
Yet a new study on sarcasm claims that it can help boost creativity and abstract thinking—not just for the person speaking, but also for the listener. Yeah, right?
Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and her colleagues performed a series of experiments involving some 300 people. In groups of two, participants either made or listened to sarcastic, genuine, or neutral remarks. Then they performed tasks meant to test creative and abstract thinking, answering questions such as: “What one word can you relate to ‘gold,’ ‘stool,’ and ‘tender’? (The answer is “bar.”)
The researchers, who published their results in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that after being exposed to sarcasm, participants increased their ability to solve problems creatively, compared with their non-sarcastic counterparts.
But that’s not to say that sarcasm always helps.
“The effectiveness of sarcasm may depend on the ability of the recipient to understand the sarcastic remark,” Ella Miron-Spektor, a psychologist at the Israel Institute of Technology who has previously worked on this subject, told Quartz. “Sarcasm increases [a] sense of conflict which may have negative consequences for relationships with others. “
The study researchers also measured mood, which has been shown in previous studies to play an important role in how humor affects creativity. The general idea is that when we laugh, we feel happy, and when we feel happy, we’re better at making connections.
But the study found that sarcasm didn’t necessarily make people happy. Indeed, it made some people feel tense. That’s why business psychologist Michael West of Lancaster University is not convinced of the pro-sarcasm findings. “There are much more effective ways of boosting creativity which are less damaging to the climate of a team or an organization,” he told Quartz.
So before you fill your next meeting with your biting commentary, make sure people know your intentions are good. Seriously.