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Sarcasm Boosts Creativity? Yeah, Right.

New research from Israel suggests exposure to sarcasm may enhance creative thinking.
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Although it’s frowned upon in business school, some managers think of anger as a motivational tool. Employees aware that an impatient customer is seething, or the boss is near the boiling point, work more quickly and efficiently, don’t they?

Newly published research from Israel suggests this blow-your-stack strategy can produce the desired results — but only when workers are performing relatively simple tasks. If their job requires creative problem-solving, the catalyst you crave may be caustic contempt.

“Sarcastic expressions of anger, in contrast to direct expressions, can have a positive effect on complex thinking and on solving of creative problems,” a research team led by psychologist Ella Miron-Spektor of Bar-Ilan University reports in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Its study suggests anger can motivate employees to think creatively, so long as it is expressed “with some irony and humor.”

Evidence for this conclusion can be found in three experiments, one of which featured 184 undergraduate engineering students. They began by listening to one of three messages purportedly left on a business’ customer service line. All featured customers complaining that the company only makes deliveries at an inconvenient time of day — between 9 a.m. and noon.

The first message “featured hostile language and negative intonation,” including the outburst “This is an outrage!” The second message “combined positive language and negative intonation,” such as “These hours are just ‘perfect’ for working people!” The third message featured neutral language delivered without emotion (“I am at work doing those hours”).

The participants then were asked to solve a series of creative problems (in which they identified associations between three seemingly unrelated words) and analytic problems (in which they determined whether pairs of meaningless letter strings were identical).

Those who had heard the angry complaint scored highest on the analytic test, slightly ahead of the other two groups. But they came in last on the creativity test. When imaginative leaps were required, those exposed to the sarcastic message far outperformed the others.

So different ways of expressing exasperation produced different results. Exposure to direct anger can motivate people performing “simple and well-rehearsed tasks,” the researchers write. But that sort of raw rage “may disable one’s ability to integrate information that is seemingly unrelated to the situation at hand,” inhibiting the performance of more complex work.

This counterproductive effect evaporates when the anger is expressed indirectly via thinly veiled scorn. As Miron-Spektor and her colleagues put it: “The incongruent information inherent in sarcasm appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger.”

Who knew Lewis Black was a management guru?

“It is improbable that anger can be completely removed from organizations,” the researchers note, “so our findings call for careful attention of supervisors and customers to the way that felt anger is expressed.” Of course, not everyone is a manager, but we’re all customers at some point.

So the next time your bank screws up your statement, don’t chew out that customer service representative — who, after all, may be able to figure out a way to fix your problem. Better to adopt a snarky tone of voice and insist you have no real need for that money, since you’ve always wondered what it’s like to be homeless.

And if that evokes a prickly response, just repeat the sage mantra of Steve Martin: “Well, excuuuuuse me!”

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