No Joke: Improv Comedy Reduces Social Anxiety
A new study reveals that improv decreases anxiety and uncertainty intolerance.
Posted January 24, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Intolerance of uncertainty has been implicated in psychological issues like depression and anxiety.
- A new study shows that improv could be an important social/emotional tool.
- Positive effects may come from improv's demands to collaborate, be in the moment, be playful and imaginative, and tolerate uncertainty.
Recently, I was on an NPR podcast about improv comedy and its psychological benefits, and I made a cardinal error. I scrolled through the Instagram comments.
Improv gets a bad rap. Sometimes for good reason. There’s a lot of cringy, amateur improv going on out there. You want me to pay a two-drink minimum to watch you mug and deliver dad jokes? “I need a suggestion. All we need is a location!” Groan. Please take me immediately to any location that's not here at this improv show!
But judging improv for its most rooky players is like judging all music based on that viral video of the school band concert. 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 all playing from the same sheet music.
Improv can be very bad. It can also be very good. There’s a two-man improv team called TJ and Dave that is transcendent. They walk onto the stage and take their time. TJ and Dave play realistic characters and don’t go for cheap laughs. They create fully realized performances with heart and depth. Or take the Improvised Shakespeare Company, which creates spontaneous two-hour Elizabethan dramas from an audience suggestion. How they can improvise in iambic pentameter is beyond me and beyond impressive. And there are rap and musical improv groups like Freestyle Love Supreme and Broadway’s Next Hit Musical. Improv can be a genuine talent that boggles the mind and is fun to watch.
Besides being good, improv can also be a skill set, a set of tools to help people collaborate, create, and build confidence. The Unscripted Project in Philadelphia and the Improv Project in Detroit bring improv into city schools to build students’ social skills. There’s a lengthy list of organizations doing this kind of work, and, as a teacher, I know that they wouldn’t be effective if facilitators were going in with puns and lame slapstick.
Finally, improv doesn’t have to be funny, just like musical improv doesn’t have to be serious and take place in a smoky room.
One new study shows just how important improv could be as a social/emotional tool.
Peter Felsman led a study and did some major number crunching to test how hundreds of Detroit students changed between the beginning and end of a 10-week improv course. The Improv Project led the workshops. Students completed surveys on week one and week 10 that measured their uncertainty intolerance, social anxiety, and social efficacy.
Felsman hypothesized that improv would lower social anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty and that the two were correlated. Improv forces people to deal with uncertainty. That’s the name of the game. You get up and have no idea what your partner will say, but you’ve got to make it work.
Felsman's team published a 2020 experimental paper showing that improv (vs a non-improv control group that interacted socially without doing improv) led to increased uncertainty tolerance, and they wanted to see how this link would hold up in a real improv program. Since intolerance of uncertainty has been implicated in psychological issues like depression and anxiety, their new study set out to test (1) whether improv training would be related to reductions in intolerance of uncertainty (which their experimental paper suggested) and (2) whether that might explain improv's connection with reduced social anxiety, a finding Felsman's team reported in a 2019 paper. The hypothesis was that exposing people to improv’s uncertainty would make them more comfortable with it since it’s happening in a supportive environment and that this increase in comfort with uncertainty would also decrease people’s social anxiety.
Felsman’s hypothesis rang true once all the numbers were crunched.
Here are the findings:
- Ten weeks of improv showed a significant decrease in the overall group’s social anxiety and uncertainty intolerance.
- Improv led to even more significant decreases in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety among students who were diagnosed with social anxiety.
- Students with social anxiety were less likely to have reported being actively engaged in the class, but those who did participate actively showed the biggest decreases in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety.
- The more people engaged in the workshops, the more significant their decreases in uncertainty intolerance and social anxiety.
- Changes in uncertainty intolerance were correlated to changes in social anxiety.
Felsman writes that we have two options when it comes to uncertainty: We can plan, or we can deal with it. However, as I hope we all know, all the planning in the world can’t purge our lives of uncertainty. It’s inevitable, so it makes sense to start thinking of ways to start tolerating it.
I reached out to Felsman to get a sense of where we're at with improv research, what this and other studies tell us, and what's left unanswered. He explained:
- Improv research shows that improv "seems to be generally good" for things like anxiety (social and generalized), depression, creativity, uncertainty tolerance, and an overall sense of well-being.
- Reasons for improv's positive effects are varied and include processes like improv's demands 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 required to understand how each process impacts improvisers.
- Improv benefits different people in different ways. More research needs to be done about why some people are more helped by improv than others.
We can say generally that improv can positively impact people, but we need more research to start answering why and who.
So make all the jokes you want about improv giving you more anxiety; the data, on average, say just the opposite. Felsman’s most recent study found that improv is an accessible, affordable intervention for social anxiety and that its power lies, at least in part, in its prerequisite that we jump onstage with no earthly idea what our partner will say, or even what we’ll say.
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People may have a preconceived notion of what improv is, but this study is yet another piece of evidence that it’s no laughing matter. Or maybe it is a laughing matter—a laughing matter that can help us address our skyrocketing anxiety levels and better tolerate uncertainty.
Felsman, P., Gunawardena, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2020). Improv experience promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 35, 100632.
Felsman, P., Seifert, C. M., & Himle, J. A. (2019). The use of improvisational theater training to reduce social anxiety in adolescents. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 63, 111-117.
Felsman, P., Seifert, C. M., Sinco, B., & Himle, J. A. (2023). Reducing social anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty in adolescents with improvisational theater. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 82, 101985.