Comedians of errors: Comedy and mental health

I subscribe to a few psychology blogs that report on new findings. One of the findings I read last week was really interesting to me, because it confirmed a theory that I already had the beginnings of in my mind, but hadn’t fully developed.

The study was by Ando, Claridge, and Clark and looked at the experiences of comedians and actors. They gave the Oxford–Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE) to over 500 comedians and over 350 actors. The O-LIFE measures 4 different things (information on the O-Life was obtained from here):

Unusual Experiences– whether people have had experiences linked to schizophrenic disorders, such as like seeing something no-one else did, or believing they had given secret messages from songs on the radio.

Cognitive Disorganistion– whether people’s thoughts and speech jump around, and whether they have trouble following a logical sequence of events.

Introvertive Anhedonia– someone with a high level of this will not find external activities entertaining or satisfying, but instead gain pleasure from the workings of their mind such as their daydreams and fantasies.

Impulsive Noncomformity– people’s instability especially in regard to social rules; someone with high IN can unpredictably perform destructive acts or acts seemingly aimed at getting themselves rejected socially, but will at other times be socially fine.

Ando et al found the comedians scored more highly on all four areas of the test than would be expected. In tests like this, typical results are produced from norms- tables of the average results for different groups of people, such as from different countries, or various ages. They also found the actors did not experience Introverted Anhedonia, but had high-scores in the other three areas.

For the original paper abstract, look here– however, that doesn’t show any details of the differences between actors and comedians, or just how different they were from the norms.

I’d had a theory for a while that comedians would probably be classed as having a borderline-dysfunctional cognitive style.  Comedy is often derived from seeing things in a different way, and therefore having a different outlook on life. If someone has known their entire life that they way they see things is different to how “normal” people see things, then the two major responses to that are either

A) to presume their way of seeing things is defective and probably end up depressed, or

B) to find the boundaries and differences between their view and other people’s view, and use this to encourage other people to see the world differently.

Option B sounds a lot like the path of a comedian.
Also, comedy depends on balancing the novel and the typical: something completely typical is uninteresting, and wouldn’t be funny, yet something completely novel would be unintelligible, impossible to relate to, and therefore also not funny. A balance enables relating the novel to the typical, and linking weird approaches to typical approaches in an understandable way. Successful comedians aren’t the people with the funniest ideas, but the people who can take a normal person’s way of seeing the world and tie it in knots or poke holes in it with their own way of seeing things.

This also got me wondering whether there were many psychologist-comedians.
There probably can’t be many counsellor-comedians, as they wouldn’t be able to talk about any of their job on stage. For other areas in psychology, it would depend: academic researchers probably couldn’t talk about their work before it was published, but could probably get some fun out of lab humour and the world of academia, while applied researchers could probably talk about people they’ve seen if they changed some details. One of my neuroscience lecturers actually does some stand-up comedy: however, I think its not all psychology-based.

Even if psychologists couldn’t be comedians, I think most of them would end up developing a good sense of humour: academics would need it the same way administrative and bureaucratic workers would, while psychiatrists and psychologists dealing with patients probably have the same gallows humour as doctors in order to deal with and process their work.

It would be interesting to see whether psychologists would score highly on the O-Life measures, thinking about it- I have to admit the idea of a cognitive researcher doing badly on one of their one tests has always been an entertaining one.

That’s it from me today, if you have any questions or comments, then let me know.

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