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Joking Aside, Sarcasm May Enhance Creativity

Joking Aside, Sarcasm May Enhance Creativity

Derived from the Greek word “to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage, sneer,” it’s no surprise that sarcasm or the “use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say” is often presented as dark comic relief. Think Dennis Leary, Bill Maher, Tina Fey. Delivered late-night and enjoyed while sitting back with a drink in hand, we often can’t help but laugh at the quips delivered, the unexpected turn of words, and the mocking of the ignorant and ridiculous.

Beyond the cutting edge of sarcasm, however, lies a bright spot. It may actually promote creativity and serve as an indicator of intelligence.

While sarcasm has long been associated with higher-level cognitive thinking, science is just now giving it proper recognition and consideration. One study illustrated the complexity of processing sarcasm using a simple storytelling task. Scientists recruited 17 healthy volunteers and 41 additional subjects suffering from mild brain damage following an illness or accident. Participants listened to 8 prerecorded stories, each one presented twice. One version included a character making a sarcastic comment and the other did not. Researchers then assessed whether participants could identify the sarcasm when present.

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Results were striking. The 25 participants with damage to the prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for a variety of complex behaviors including planning, decision-making, and personality expression — did not process the sarcastic remarks as quickly as the others. This study was in line with others showing the need for critical thinking functions, or what some term “mental gymnastics,” in processing sarcasm.

Simply put, sarcasm requires complex thinking.  

This work was followed up later by another project that encompassed 4 different studies. In each, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: sarcastic, sincere, or neutral. Then, as part of a simulated conversation, they either expressed something sarcastically or sincerely, received a sarcastic or sincere reply, or remained neutral in their exchange. These exchanges were then followed up with an assessment designed to measure creativity.

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Interestingly, several findings emerged. First, expressing and receiving sarcasm was associated with enhanced creativity. Second, the conflict between the people involved was only increased if the other person in the exchange was not a trusted other — so sarcasm between friends may benefit creativity without raising conflict. Finally, sarcasm worked to enhance creativity through its effects on abstract thinking on both the speaker and the listener.

So, that sarcastic remark your friend just uttered? Both you and your friend are getting a cognitive boost from it.

How does this work exactly? It’s believed that the left hemisphere of our brain decodes the literal meaning of a phrase while the right uncovers the implied meaning. That prefrontal cortex mentioned earlier then connects the two, which is why those with an injury to the prefrontal cortex described in the first study presented had such trouble “getting” the sarcasm.

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As the authors of this last study stated in The Harvard Gazette, ““Not only did we demonstrate the causal effect of expressing sarcasm on creativity… we also demonstrated, for the first time, the cognitive benefit sarcasm recipients could reap.”

This benefit makes sense given that to either create or decode a sarcastic remark, your brain needs to reconcile the contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the meaning that the speaker intends. This contradiction is one reason why language-processing systems have such difficulty picking up sarcasm in social media (although some are getting close). It’s hard to recognize and takes work. Abstract thinking facilitates this process, which in turn results in increased creative thought.

However, since there is a “relational cost” of sarcasm in the form of conflict, it’s best among friends.

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Sarcasm is complicated, and research suggests there might be sub-types of it, some more harsh and others more jocular. Research will continue to uncover how our brains work to create and process sarcasm, but it’s looking as if there are some benefits. So next time you’re listening to a comic dishing out the sarcasm, you can rest assured that your brain is getting a bit of a workout, and you may just come away a little bit brighter in the process.

Featured photo credit: Viktor Hanacek via picjumbo.com

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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