Lori Anderson: A bit of sarcasm is good for us

Cara Delevingne. Picture: Getty
Cara Delevingne. Picture: Getty
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Research has found the lowest form of wit enhances creativity and productivity, writes Lori Anderson

Americans, my heart bleeds for you. Sometimes there’s only one socially acceptable way to sneer at a person or an entire nation in public – sarcasm. What Oscar Wilde described as the lowest form of wit is actually a pinnacle of humour that our American cousins have yet to scale, at least according to Cara Delevingne. Earlier this week the eyebrow arching maw (model actress whatever) said “some people just don’t understand sarcasm” and cast a snook at the American TV anchors who misinterpreted her sarcastic remarks during an interview for her new movie Paper Towns for either ignorance or apathy.

As with her recent and brief experiment with grey hair, Delevingne was predictably “on fleek”, to use a toe-curling phrase from that bankrupt world of fashion which discarded “on trend” after it became the most hackneyed phrase of TV shopping channels.

For sarcasm and its use and abuse has been one of the subjects of the week after a new report revealed that both being sarcastic and being the recipient of a sarcastic remark enhances one’s creativity.

This means that both Cara Delevingne and her two bemused interviewers benefited from their recent exchange, at least according to last week’s study in a journal entitled Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, of which I’ve been a long time subscriber. Ahem.

Before we move on to the study it’s best that we slay one untruth that has been rampaging around Britain for decades which is that Americans don’t get sarcasm. They do. I can prove it by pointing to two pieces of evidence.

One is an analysis of an American database of recorded telephone conversations which found that 23 per cent of all calls contained the words “yeah right” while the other is an episode of The Simpsons. Professor Frick reveals his latest invention as “a sarcasm detector”. Comic Book Guy looks at it and says: “Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention.” The machine explodes. Case closed.

Let’s now examine the results of a study that combined the brains of Insead, a leading business school as well as those of researchers from both Harvard and Columbia Universities. Together they concluded that sarcastic remarks – both making them and understanding them – forces us to switch to abstract thinking which will make us more creative. Basically sarcasm requires mental gymnastics that are on a par with the gyrations of lithe leotard-clad ribbon twirlers who prance along the beam at the Olympics.

Previous studies of the electrical activity of our brains found that sarcastic sentences exercise the brain more than simple, sincere sentences. The research team concluded that those companies who try and ban sarcastic remarks as unhelpful and detrimental to staff moral could actually see both productivity and profitability plummet. I think this study has been a fruitful way to spent time and resources.

What the research team did was to expose one group of people to sarcastic remarks and another set to sincere statements then ask both sets to perform a task that required mental creativity. The results found that 75 per cent of those who has been sarcastically assaulted completed the task correctly compared to 25 per cent of those who had been soothed by sincere sentences.

Dr Li Huang, who led the research, was quoted as saying: “We found that sarcasm may stimulate creativity, the generation of ideas, insights, or problem solutions that are novel and useful. As Oscar Wilde believed, sarcasm may represent a lower form of wit but we found that it certainly catalyses a higher form of thought.”

We learn to understand sarcasm by the time we arrive at nursery school by which point we have developed what scientists refer to as a “theory of mind” which allows us to understand that someone can say one thing and mean the complete opposite. An article in the Smithsonian magazine used as an example a brother saying “nice job” after you’ve spilled the milk.

It’s understandable to think that as a society we’ve become increasingly sarcastic. John Haiman, a linguist and author of the book Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language said “it’s practically the primary language” of modern society. Yet I think it is probably marbled throughout human history. The word “sarcasm” dates back to the 1570s and is derived from two Greek words “sarkasmos” to sneer, jest or taunt and “sarkazein” to speak bitterly. The earliest jokes and cutting remarks are forms of sarcasm. In Roman times when a barber asked how a senator liked his hair cut he would reply, “in silence”. While the word laconic comes from the Greek island state of Laconia, home of the Spartans who when they heard that Philip of Macedon said “if I invade I’ll raze the nation to the ground” replied with a single word. “If”.

It’s not that far in humour to Basil Fawlty saying: “A satisfied customer. We should have him stuffed.” As a nation we Scots are steeped in sarcasm. Flyting, those verbal jousts of the 16th century, in which poets mocked each other in public for the entertainment of the King and his subjects would wield sarcasm like a metal studded mace, while today Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle have also perfected a modern humour dripping in sarcasm.

Thanks to the diligence of Dr Huang we now know that when our boss listens to our rambling, incomprehensible excuses then stares back blankly and replies “how fascinating, do tell me more” he or she is not only exercising the ancient art of sarcasm but aiding our creativity. How kind.