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Recently, I was on an NPR podcast about improvised comedy and its psychological benefits, and I made a fundamental mistake. I scrolled through the Instagram comments.
Improv has a bad reputation. Sometimes for good reason. There’s a lot of petty amateur improvising going on out there. You want me to buy a minimum of two drinks to watch you mug and tell dad jokes? “I need a suggestion. All we need is a location!” Groan. Please immediately take me anywhere other than here at this improv show!
But judging improv for your most novice musicians is like judging all songs based on that viral high school band concert video. Sound was coming out of the instruments, but I still don’t know what song they were trying to play or even if they were playing the same sheet music.
Improvisation can be very bad. It can also be really good. There’s a two-man improv team called TJ and Dave that is transcendent. They go on stage and linger. TJ and Dave play down to earth characters and don’t like cheap laughs. They create fully realized performances with heart and depth. Or check out the Improvised Shakespeare Company, which creates spontaneous two-hour Elizabethan dramas based on an audience suggestion. How they can improvise in iambic pentameter is beyond me and beyond impressive. And then there are rap and improv groups like Freestyle Love Supreme and Broadway’s Next Hit Musical. Improvisation can be a genuine talent that boggles the mind and is fun to watch.
In addition to being good, improvising can also be a skill set, a set of tools to help people collaborate, create and build trust. The Unscripted Project in Philadelphia and the Improv Project in Detroit bring improvisation to the city’s schools to develop students’ social skills. There’s a long list of organizations that do this kind of work, and as a teacher I know that they wouldn’t be effective if the facilitators came in with silly puns and antics.
Finally, improvisation doesn’t have to be funny, just as musical improvisation doesn’t have to be serious and take place in a smoky room.
Source: Sammie Chaffin/Unsplash
A new study shows just how important improvisation can be as a social/emotional tool.
Peter Felsman led a study and did some important calculations to test how hundreds of Detroit students changed between the beginning and end of a 10-week improvisation course. The Improv Project led the workshops. Students completed surveys at week one and week 10 that measured their uncertainty intolerance, social anxiety, and social efficacy.
Felsman hypothesized that improvisation would reduce social anxiety and uncertainty intolerance and that the two were correlated. Improvisation forces people to deal with uncertainty. That’s the name of the game. You stand up and you have no idea what your partner is going to say, but you have to make it work.
Felsman’s team published an experimental paper in 2020 showing that improvisation (vs a non-improvisational control group that interacted socially without improvising) led to a greater tolerance for uncertainty, and they wanted to see how this bond would hold up in an actual improvisation program . Since uncertainty intolerance has been implicated in psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, their new study set out to test (1) whether improvisation training was related to reductions in uncertainty intolerance (which their experimental paper suggested) and ( 2) whether this can explain improvisation’s connection to reduced social anxiety, a finding Felsman’s team reported in a 2019 paper. The hypothesis was that exposing people to the uncertainty of improvisation would make them more comfortable with it , since it is happening in a favorable environment and that this increase in comfort with uncertainty would also decrease people’s social anxiety.
Felsman’s hypothesis rang true when all the numbers were analyzed.
Here are the findings:
- Ten weeks of improvisation showed a significant decrease in social anxiety and uncertainty intolerance in the general group.
- Improvisation led to even more significant reductions in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety among students diagnosed with social anxiety.
- Students with social anxiety were less likely to report being actively involved in class, but those who actively participated showed the greatest reductions in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety.
- The more people who engage in the workshops, the more significant the reductions in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety.
- Changes in uncertainty intolerance were correlated with changes in social anxiety.
Felsman writes that we have two options when it comes to uncertainty: we can plan for it, or we can deal with it. However, as I hope we all know, all the planning in the world cannot clean our lives of uncertainty. It’s unavoidable, so it makes sense to start thinking of ways to tolerate it.
I reached out to Felsman to get an idea of where we are with improvisation research, what this and other studies tell us, and what still remains unanswered. He explained:
- Improvisation research shows that improvisation “appears to be generally good” for things like anxiety (social and generalized), depression, creativity, tolerance of uncertainty and a general sense of well-being.
- The reasons for the positive effects of improvisation are varied and include processes such as the demands of improvisation that we collaborate, build an ensemble, be in the moment, go with the flow, be playful and imaginative, and tolerate uncertainty (that’s the name of the game). . More research is needed to understand how each process affects improvisers.
- Improvisation benefits different people in different ways. More research needs to be done on why some people are helped more by improvisation than others.
We can generally say that improvisation can positively impact people, but we need more research to begin to answer why and who.
So make all the jokes you want about improv giving him more anxiety; the data, on average, say just the opposite. Felsman’s most recent study found that improvisation is an affordable and cost-effective intervention for social anxiety and that its power lies, at least in part, in the prerequisite of walking onstage with no earthly idea of what our partner will say, or even what we say. to say.
People may have a preconceived notion of what improv is, but this study is further proof that it’s no laughing matter. Or maybe it’s a laughing matter – a laughing matter that can help us deal with our rising anxiety levels and better tolerate uncertainty.