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How to Live a Better Life Through Sarcasm


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Being sarcastic makes you so much better than other people. No seriously, it sort of does. Researchers collaborating across Harvard, Columbia, and INSEAD found that people who were sarcastic or who had people be sarcastic with them were more creative than people who didn’t experience any sarcasm.

And that was any kind of sarcasm: mean sarcasm, gentle sarcasm, and I don’t know, maybe even really dumb and obvious sarcasm like I used to start this video. Oh, I’m sure nobody thought to introduce this news story by employing sarcasm. How clever.

They tested creativity in part by giving subjects a test involving a box of nails, a candle, and a book of matches, asking them how they’d go about securing the candle to the wall and lighting it without wax dripping on the table. According to the study results, about 75% of you should get the solution to this, considering that you’re all so smart and clever, and you’ve already been exposed several times now to my high quality, biting sarcasm.

One fun detail about this study is that the people who benefitted most from the sarcasm were those who were the targets of it, not the originators. So remember that the next time some snot nosed kid says something snarky to you, just relax and whip out your acrylics because shit is about to get Bob Ross up in here.

This study fits in with a long history showing that irony is helpful. In my talk, Laugh Riot, I discuss a few of the ways that humor can be used to influence the public. Irony has a fascinating effect on people, because it forces you to stop and really think about what a person is saying. Because it requires extra processing, that kind of humor can be used, in a way, to distract people, making it so that they have trouble thinking up objections to what you’re saying. That makes it pretty effective as a persuasive tool, but pretty maddening when it’s used against you. That’s why a lot of my fellow atheist friends love seeing South Park address Scientology or Mormonism, but when the atheist episode came around, they noticed that it wasn’t nearly as subtle as they would have liked.

Anyway, these past studies showing that irony and sarcasm require the listener’s brain to work harder support the idea that that extra flexing can get you in the swing of thinking laterally when it comes to puzzles or other forms of creativity. And speaking of that, the solution to the candle problem is to take the box that the nails are in, nail it to the wall, and then put the candle inside it and light it up. Let me know in the comments if you got it right and we’ll see if YouTube commenters are any smarter than psychological test subjects. If you commented before you even got to that point in the video, probably to tell me I’m ugly or ask why I hate men, we’ll know the answer was probably “no”.

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  1. So, since this is still a skeptic website, let’s talk limitations.

    They used the academic standard test of creativity: the box-and-tacks test.

    You get a box full of tacks, a candle, and a match in an empty room. You are told to light the candle without getting any part (including melted wax) on the floor. They then measure how long it takes to come up with the “non-intuitive” answer of tacking the box to the wall and putting the candle in it. It’s very important that the participant receive a box of tacks, not a box and tacks, because people tend to solve the problem faster.

    So: the limitation is that this is conventionally understood to be a psychological measure of creativity. But we don’t actually know if all creative activities share similar non-standard modes of thinking with it.

    So that’s it. That’s all I’ve got for objections to the news’ interpretations of this.

  2. My big problem is that the more sincere I’m trying to be the more saracstic I sound. I even have to tell people before I do public speaking events that I’m not being an asshole. It’s just the way I sound :-/

  3. I think the box would be far too flimsy to support the weight of the candle, which would also catch fire and burn down the room & building even if it could support it (as dysomniak said, above). ;)

    • Tacks are steel (or brass, i.e. made of metal and dense), so the boxes they come in are usually pretty heavy grade cardboard.

      1) I picture nailing through the side of the box (not the bottom), so it makes a nice little container for setting the candle into. You can always use more than one tack if necessary.

      2) Set the candle in the box and 3) light it. 4) Run away. 5) ???? 6) Profit.

      In an hour or two (depending on the size of the candle), it will burn down below the top of the box and set it on fire. With any luck, the candle will have melted down and filled the box, making the cardboard edges into a giant wick, like a torch from an old monster movie. The gushing flames will light the building on fire. This is why it is important to run away in step 4.

      I don’t understand step 5. Maybe take out an insurance policy on the building?

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