Sci + Society,

#174: There’s Something About Sarcasm…

March 31, 2017

Sarcasm can the foundation of misunderstanding —

But maybe there’s something about sarcasm that can connect us to the power of creativity?

That’s exactly what research from Dr. Adam Galinsky, Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business and Chair of Management Division at Columbia Business School, indicates.

The Link Between Sarcasm and Creativity

According to Dr. Galinsky’s research, being sarcastic requires creative thinking.  To be sarcastic, you have to understand the distinction between the literal meaning of your words, and their intended meaning.

And it’s not just making a sarcastic comment that results in a creativity boost.  When participants heard and understood a sarcastic statement, they performed better on a test of creativity.

When you think about it, it makes sense.  To interpret sarcasm, the listener has to notice the difference between what was said and what was intended.

Of course, sarcasm has its limits, particularly if the listen misses the sarcasm.  Sarcasm works best when used between people who trust each other to have good intentions.

More Ways to Boost Creativity

Sarcasm is not the only way to boost creativity — there are a number of ways to get there.  Living in a foreign country increases creativity, although interestingly, merely traveling abroad does not.

The difference?  Living abroad gives you the opportunity and motivation to really dig deep and understand the why of cultural differences.  Trips abroad don’t generally get you out of your cultural bubble.  The same goes for expats who only socialize with others from their home country — they don’t see any creative benefits from their foreign stint.

You need to have what Dr. Galinsky calls a “learning orientation” to get a boost in creativity:

  • You have to recognize the difference in culture.
  • You have you want to understand why those differences exist.
  • And you have to appreciate how that new understanding is changing the way you look at the world.

But not everyone has the means or inclination to live abroad.  The good news from a recent study is that you don’t actually have to leave the country to get the benefits of close interaction with another culture.  You just need to form a close relationship with someone from another culture and make a real effort to understand them.  Yet another reason to date that mysterious foreigner.

Not all foreign cultures are created equal in this regard.  The biggest boosts in creative thinking come from big cultural differences.  For example, you’ll become more creative if you move from the UK to Russia than if you move from the UK to France.

Like most things in life, there is a limit.  If you move to a country too culturally distinct for you to understand it and you don’t spend enough time there, the opposite will occur.  You’ll actually see a decrease in creativity.

Another catalyst for creativity is counterfactual thinking.  Counterfactual thinking involves thinking about alternative outcomes of past events.  For example, it’s imaging all the ways the world would be different if you had gone to college somewhere else or married a different person.

You think counterfactually, you have to understand the relationship between past events and what could have happened in an alternative reality.

The Elements of Creativity

At its core, creativity is noticing something different.  But there are different aspects to creativity.

There’s the ability to come up with new and novel ideas, and the ability to select which ones are useful.  Dr. Galinsky makes the distinction between divergent and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with lots of different ideas.  Convergent thinking is the ability to come up with the one right creative solution.

Most catalysts for creativity increase both divergent and convergent thinking, with the exception of counterfactual thinking, which appears to only boost convergent thinking.

Ultimately, Dr. Galinsky says the best way to become more creative is to be curious about the world and ask questions that get to the why.

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