Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Sarcasm – better than its reputation?

Companies would like to have happy, satisfied customers. However, sometimes it happens that an angry customer calls, sometimes boiling with rage, sometimes making sarcastic remarks. This is not what the company was aiming for. But, believe it or not, there is even something positive about a customer’s anger or sarcasm.

Researchers Ella Miron-Spektor and her colleagues from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, found that a conversational partner’s anger boosts analytical thinking, whereas a dialogue partner’s sarcasm enhances creativity in individuals. In their experiment, they confronted subjects with three different complaints, one stated factually, one angrily, and one sarcastically. Afterwards, they had the study participants solve different kinds of problems. It turned out that subjects who had listened to the angry complaint were more successful in solving an analytical problem than the other two groups, whereas those who had been exposed to the sarcastic complaint were better at creative problem solving.

The original article was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, and there is a description of the study on the website Miller-McCune.

The described effect of sarcasm, however, presupposes that the listener identifies the sarcasm in the remark. For sure it can be doubted that this is the case in many individuals because it requires being skilled in the subtleties of language, facial expression, and body language. Furthermore, the authors see an interesting reason for the effect they found: “prevention orientation”.

If this sounds strange to you already, there is one study by Gerben van Kleef and colleagues from Amsterdam University that even comes up with what they call “epistemic motivation (EM)—the desire to develop an accurate understanding of the situation”. They found individuals that score high on EM are better at creative problem solving when confronted with angry than with neutral feedback, whereas it is the other way round for individuals that score low on EM.

This study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and there is an outline of it on the website Miller-McCune as well.

Maybe you see anger and sarcasm a bit more positive now – but maybe not…

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