The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm

Dec 3, 2015

by Francesca Gino

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence,” wrote that connoisseur of wit, Oscar Wilde. Whether sarcasm is a sign of intelligence or not, communication experts and marriage counselors alike typically advise us to stay away from this particular form of expression. The reason is simple: sarcasm expresses the poisonous sting of contempt, hurting others and harming relationships. As a form of communication, sarcasm takes on the debt of conflict.

And yet, our research suggests, there may also be some unexpected benefits from sarcasm: greater creativity. The use of sarcasm, in fact, promotes creativity for those on both the giving and receiving end of sarcastic exchanges. Instead of avoiding sarcasm completely in the office, the research suggests sarcasm, used with care and in moderation, can be effectively used and trigger some creative sparks.

Sarcasm involves constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings. The most common form of verbal irony, sarcasm is often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn. “Pat, don’t work so hard!”, a boss might say upon catching his assistant surfing the Internet. Early research on sarcasm explored how people interpret statements and found that, as expected, sarcasm makes a statement sound more critical. In one laboratory study, participants read scenarios in which, for instance, (1) one person did something that could be viewed negatively, such as smoking, and (2) a second person commented on the behavior to the first person, either literally (“I see you don’t have a healthy concern for your lungs”) or sarcastically (“I see you have a healthy concern for your lungs”). Participants rated sarcasm to be more condemning than literal statements. In a similar study, participants were encouraged to empathize either with a person behaving in a way that could be construed as negative or with a second person commenting on the first person’s behavior. Both perspectives prompted participants to rate sarcastic comments by the second person as more impolite relative to literal comments.

Other research has show that sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted, particularly when communicated electronically. In one study, 30 pairs of university students were given a list of statements to communicate, half of which were sarcastic and half of which were serious. Some students communicated their messages via e-mail and others via voice recordings. Participants who received the voice messages accurately gleaned the sarcasm (or lack thereof) 73 percent of the time, but those who received the statements via e-mail did so only 56 percent of the time, hardly better than chance. By comparison, the e-mailers had anticipated that 78 percent of participants would pick up on the sarcasm inherent in their sarcastic statements. That is, they badly overestimated their ability to communicate the tenor of their sarcastic statements via e-mail. What’s more, the recipients of the sarcastic e-mails were also decidedly overconfident. They guessed they would correctly interpret the tone of the e-mails they received about 90 percent of the time. They were considerably less overconfident about their ability to interpret voice messages.

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19 comments on “The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm

  • @OP – Early research on sarcasm explored how people interpret statements and found that, as expected, sarcasm makes a statement sound more critical.

    . . . . . Not really a problem then when commenting on behaviour or thinking deserving of criticism!

    I have never bought into: “My perversity and ignorance finds your criticism offensive”!

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  • What’s the difference between sarcasm and satire?

    I’d say that sarcasm is light hearted and just skims the surface, whereas satire is visceral and cuts deep; a bit like the difference between a photo and a portrait painting perhaps.

    Hogarth and Rabelaise were satirists, not just sarcastic; I wonder if artists such as them have ever existed within Muslim cultures.

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  • Hi Stafford,

    My own interpretation may be entirely spurious – but why change the habit of a lifetime …

    I would say that the difference is that satire is light-hearted, employs humor and may even be playful.

    Sarcasm, meanwhile, is indivisible from mocking.

    There is clearly still a grey are between those definitions.


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  • Can’t agree with satire as only light-hearted. It is often a smile with teeth. Bitter on occasions. Certainly heatfelt. It can be directed at an individual or a country or an ideology or an archetype or class. Sarcasm is mocking and condescending to an individual, the recipient.

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  • I would maintain that sarcasm is aimed at the individual, whereas satire is reserved for national “leaders”, political parties and their members, religious dogmas and those who impose them, corporate corruption and the fatn farts who run them, repressive nations and the like.

    Current examples of which are blatantly obvious.

    Hitler, has only got one ball,
    Goring has two, but very small,
    Himmler is rather sim’lar,
    But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

    Satire or sarcasm?

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  • I think satire has to lampoon a pertinent characteristic or quality. If this is about a lack of manly courage in the upper echelons of Nazism it is satire. If it is on the level of the more spurious “Adolf and his friends all smell” it is a mere satisfying schoolboy taunt.

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  • This is to correct an omission in my last post; the lyric should be sung to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”.

    For all the verses in the song, simply Google: Colonel Bogey.

    There is another much ruder rhyme, but this is neither the time or place to mention it.

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  • Hi Stafford,

    As a former member of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force I believe I am fully aware of all variations of the ‘Hitler has only one gonad’ meme.

    Until another member, or former member, of HM’s finest abjures I will stand by Phill’s interpretation:
    Dec 5, 2015 at 5:20 am

    This I interpret as a sign.

    I have, for some while now, believed that it is time for me to retire from RDF comments. Text satire, or sarcasm, are often ignored and frequently misinterpreted – even by friendly and obviously intelligent co-respondents.

    I am unhappy that very few really read and, even less, understand what I try to say.

    I confess that I attempt to employ sarcasm/satire on an almost daily basis.

    Nevertheless, my time is often limited, while at other times I find myself with a full day with nothing better to do than to try and steer people to the evidence. This leads me to either wall-of-text responses or, as now, to something more pithy.

    Sarcasm may, as the OP suggests, be the ultimate expression of scorn. Or it might be resignation …


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  • This can’t be allowed to happen, Stephen. Too valuable.

    Screw comedy. This isn’t an open mike channel for stand up.

    About half of humor eludes me. “You owe me a keyboard,” they say and I think what the hell did they see?

    Like art, jokes are a psychology experiment for the benefit of the observer, and we are all very different. My gags mostly go out to the sound of mike tapping from me.

    You don’t get out of here until you come up with a much MUCH better excuse, I’m afraid…

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  • I didn’t expect a “my audience doesn’t understand me’ tantrum from you Steven? When I finally escaped the family home and ventured out into the English world, I had no idea what most were laughing at or any reference to “did you see ***** last night”, because we didn’t watch *****, we didn’t understand it. I went up the ranks pretty quickly though and now am a full on comedy snob because most I know don’t understand the way I do. There is plenty I don’t understand though.

    When I buy a book and at the back it says it is a comedy or a satire, I know what to expect and I look out for it. On the Net it is quite different and can, sometimes, only be pointed out with an Emoticon.

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  • Olgun
    Dec 6, 2015 at 8:27 am

    I didn’t expect a “my audience doesn’t understand me’ tantrum from you Steven?

    Nobody here can match professionals at tantrums!!!!

    Donald Trump in Twitter spat with Saudi Prince Alwaleed

    A Saudi prince has described US businessman Donald Trump, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, as a “disgrace to America”.

    Prince Alwaleed bin Talal said on Twitter that Mr Trump should give up his presidential ambitions because he would never win.

    It follows Mr Trump’s call for Muslims to be barred from entering the US, for security reasons.

    Mr Trump tweeted back, calling the prince “dopey“.

    He also accused Prince Alwaleed – one of the richest men in the Arab world – of wanting to use what he called “Daddy’s money” to control US politicians.

    That would not happen, Mr Trump said, when he got elected.

    Who would have thought Busshy Republican presidents could be bought by the Saudi oil money????

    Still! It’s good to know that potential leaders have the requisite diplomatic skills to conduct international negotiations!

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