Great news, my fellow fans of a well-placed sarcastic comment! What many refer to as “the lowest form of wit” might just mean you’re smarter than your sincere counterparts. Researchers at Harvard and Columbia University discovered why sarcastic people are more intelligent and creative than their counterparts. Read on to learn more, plus find out why sarcasm still isn’t always the best form of wit.
Sarcastic People Are More Intelligent and Creative, Research Shows
Ever notice how people who don’t like sarcasm are quick to whip out Oscar Wilde’s quote about it being the lowest form of wit? Well, that’s not all he said about it. Just like “Curiosity killed the cat” has an often-forgotten second half (it’s “satisfaction brought him back,” if you’re curious), Oscar Wilde’s famous wit quote continues with “…but the highest form of intelligence.”
Turns out, he was right, at least according to a set of studies run by researchers at Harvard, Columbia, and INSEAD (a European business management grad school). Li Huang, Francesca Gino, and Adam D.Galinsk proposed and tested a theory in which both the use and understanding of sarcasm “lead to greater creativity because they activate abstract thinking.”
To prove their theory, the trio set up four different studies to look at the effect of sarcasm on both the expresser and the recipient. In each study, subjects participated in simulated conversations in which they either spoke sarcastically or sincerely (in the “say what you mean and mean what you say” sense). Afterward, they were given a set of creativity tasks to see how well they performed. Let’s look at the findings.
Why are sarcastic people more intelligent?
In all four studies. researchers found that sarcasm increased creative thinking for both the person on the giving and the receiving end. Why? Well, think about it. Sarcasm requires more “brain muscle” and abstract thinking than sincerity.
When you have a sincere conversation in which you only say exactly what you mean, your brain doesn’t really have to work all that hard. Let’s use a common phrase that can be both sarcastic and sincere as an example, “Well, that’s just wonderful.”
If you’re telling your best friend that you just earned a promotion at work, her response of “Well, that’s just wonderful!” is sincere (at least I hope so, if not you may want to find a new best friend). She put zero thought into her comment because she said the first genuine thing that came to mind. Her voice and facial expression mirrored the sentiment, so your brain puts no effort into understanding it. You take it at face value.
Now, imagine telling your biggest work rival that you’ve been promoted over her. When she says, “Well, that’s just wonderful,” she definitely doesn’t mean it. Her brain works harder to tell her mouth to say one thing and her voice another. Your brain works harder because it’s thinking, “Hmm, they’re saying X, but their voice implies Y.” It’s that level of abstract thinking on both sides that helps enhance creativity, which in turn makes you both more intelligent overall.
The Flip side: Sarcasm can also lead to more conflict
There’s a downside though. In most of the studies, researchers found that sarcasm caused more conflict than sincerity, even while it enhanced creating thinking. Again, it makes sense. Very few people like to be on the receiving end of cutting barbs. When your imaginary work rival said, “Well, that’s fantastic,” you knew that it was meant to hurt your feelings. So, of course you feel more on edge and ready to respond with a biting tone of your own.
Interestingly, though, the fourth study found that sarcasm doesn’t increase conflict when delivered by someone we trust. Say you’re making pancakes like you do every Saturday morning. Your husband asks what’s for breakfast, you tell him, and he sarcastically says, “Wow, what a big surprise.” Unless he’s regularly nasty to you (which is a whole different article), you know he doesn’t actually mean to hurt your feelings. You respond with something like, “If you want something different, you know where the stove is!” Life goes on. No harm, no foul, as they say.
Try to use sarcasm correctly and aim it out into the world rather than at another person as an insult. It’s fine to sarcastically say, “Well, that’s just wonderful,” when the weather ruins your plans. It’s not, however, nice to say it to your work rival. If you do aim it towards someone, make sure they know you well enough to understand that you’re not trying to hurt them.
In other words, just because a couple of studies show that sarcastic people are more intelligent and creative doesn’t mean you can use it as an excuse to be mean. Remember, goodness takes intelligence, too!