Brain power

Sarcasm triggers creativity and abstract thinking

An intriguing study by Huang and Gino has found that the use of sarcasm, like other forms of humour, promotes creativity through increased cognitive processing. They write:

Beyond providing plausible deniability, sarcasm, even sarcastic criticism, can be more humorous and memorable than direct communication, making sarcasm a common form of exchange in the workplace … expressing and receiving sarcasm, regardless of its content, can facilitate creativity by increasing abstract thinking.

On average, people making sarcastic remarks thought they were more humorous than the people who listened to the sarcastic remarks. However Huang and Gino note that “unlike other forms of humor, sarcasm did not seem to predict mood and mood did not drive the effect on creativity”. While sarcasm did increase conflict in teams, the use of sarcasm in teams with high levels of interpersonal trust was found to retain the creative benefits while exhibiting lesser negative effects from conflict.

Construal Level Theory is a theory of psychological distance which predicts that “an event that is increasingly distant on [any] dimensions requires relying more on mental construal and less on direct experience of the event”, regardless of the type of dimension. Simple types of psychological distance relate to time and physical proximity: whether an event is happening in the past, present or future, and whether an event is happening close to an observer or not.

In short, low psychological distance – ie a more direct experience of an event – leads to a more emotionally driven response (affective reasoning). As psychological distance increases, people to respond less with their gut and more with their brain. Greater cognitive effort increases abstract reasoning and in turn the generation of novel responses.

Huang and Gino propose that sarcasm is just another way to increase psychological distance. regardless of whether an event is in the past or future, or located a substantial physical distance away from the thinker, each is observed to have a similar psychological distance.

The strategic understanding and deployment of methods to alter psychological distance is important in predicting individual responses and consequent shifts in organisational dynamics. As such, humour and sarcasm are useful tools in modifying these outcomes.

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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.
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