“Successful comedians display symptoms of psychosis, study says” went the headline. “Psychotic traits in comedians” said the title of the study the headline was referring to. “Bang” went the foreheads meeting the desks of many psychologists, psychiatrists and humans who’d thought for five seconds about what this headline could do for science, psychology, psychiatry and mental illness stigma.
The scientific study, which in this case is apparently Latin for “press release based on a journal article”, states that the popular belief that creativity is related to mental illness is borne out in comedians, who showed higher levels of psychotic traits than actors, who both showed higher levels of psychotic traits than “normal” people. The word normal was the article’s rather than mine as obviously actors and comedians (and by association people with traits of mental illness [?!]) aren’t “normal”. At least the authors are thematically consistent with their description of their research methods and their conclusions.
Is this what the research really suggests though? Spoiler alert 1: Bananas release an enzyme that causes other fruit to go off quicker so keep them separately. Spoiler alert 2: No. No, this isn’t what the research really suggests. This isn’t going to be a painstaking dissection of the research. This isn’t the place for that kind of analysis, the research isn’t particularly hard to critique and I’ve got important slamming my hand in a car door to do. This will be a brief look at how the headline changes as we look at the research and what can be inferred from it.
The authors claim that humour often involves the ability to compare normally incongruous frames of reference. For example chickens don’t normally have complicated reasons to cross roads, elephants shouldn’t be wearing Grouch Marx’s pyjamas, Michael Gove is somehow a politician in a position of power. Thinking in people with schizophrenia is often characterised by disorganisation of thought and speech containing ideas that are not logically connected or “word” salad in one of its more extreme forms. In a leap worthy of when Indiana Jones walks across that canyon to get that magic cup, it’s then argued that because humour can involve comparing disconnected ideas and schizophrenia can involve disconnected ideas that comedians are therefore more “psychotic” than people who aren’t comedians. They chose poorly.
Obviously not all comedians have mental distress indicative of schizophrenia of another mental illness. This is where the O-LIFE Personality Scale comes in. As well as being a song by Des’ree, the O-LIFE (Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences) Personality Scale is a measure developed from the idea that symptoms/characteristics of mental illness exist on a spectrum and therefore traits which may predispose individuals to schizophrenia can be identified in non-clinical populations. In other words it looks for traits that everybody has that aren’t symptoms of mental illness but potentially would be if they were substantially exaggerated. It’s a bit like saying that people who really think dusting is important could have obsessive compulsive disorder if this trait were amplified.
New headline 1: Professional cleaners display symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
New headline 2: Successful comedians don’t display symptoms of psychosis but would do if the traits they possessed were very much exaggerated. You know, like with most people.
The O-LIFE questionnaire through getting you to answer YES/NO questions on around 160 questions (versions vary) gives you a rating in four different personality traits, identified as aspects of schizophrenia (or as the study more broadly calls it, psychosis. The two are not the same, but that’s an argument for another time.)
- Unusual Experiences: tendency for magical thinking and to experience perceptual distortions.
“I believe in telepathy and sometimes think I hear people telling me telepathy isn’t real.”
- Cognitive Disorganisation: distractibility and difficulty focussing.
“I never listen to them though because….oooh biscuits!”
- Introvertive Anhedonia: reduced ability to feel social and physical pleasure.
“I wish to be alone to eat my biscuits. Your presence makes me uncomfortable.”
- Compulsive Nonconformity: tendency to impulsive, potentially antisocial behaviour.
*Punches potential biscuit thief. Wanders of to watch Derek Acorah for 2 minutes.*
In terms of the O-LIFE (Ooooooh life! Oh life, doo do do doo) questionnaire, the higher your rating in these four areas, the more you possess traits related to psychosis. I’d rather have a piece of toast.
The study asked online for people from online comedian agencies, comedy clubs, comedian associations and comedian societies mainly in the UK, USA and
Australia who said they were comedians to complete the O-LIFE questionnaire.
New headline 3: People on the internet who say they are comedians might have traits similar to psychosis if the traits they said they had online were exaggerated.
“Actors” were recruited in a similar way through acting agencies, clubs and so forth. The sample of people saying they were comedians consisted of 523 individuals (404 men and 119 women) The control sample consisted of 364 people saying they were actors (153 men and 211 women) and the “normal” control group consisted of 831 people (246 men and 585 women). It should be noted at this point that there is clearly a big discrepancy between how many men and women are in each group and the men and women studied were different in terms of O-LIFE personality traits in the comedian, actor and control group. However they did their statistics all up in it and there was no interaction between sex and being a comedian that affected O-LIFE score so this potentially massive confounding variable gets ignored. Do men who claim to be comedians rate their own personalities differently to women who don’t? We’ll never know.
We do know.
New headline 4: More men than women say they’re comedians and also rate their own personalities differently. Information is used unwisely and incorrectly for jokes and “banter”.
The much flouted results were that people who say they’re comedians had significantly higher ratings across all four personality traits than people who don’t say they’re comedians. This seemed to particularly be the case for Introvertive Anhedonia and Impulsive Nonconformity. The authors noticed these were opposites and claimed that this means comedians were more likely to have personality traits a bit like bipolar disorder. Spike Milligan was wheeled out which proves it.
New headline 5: Mental illness is common so it’s not that shocking that some comedians have mental illnesses.
The conclusions seem to be that these traits allow comedians to be creative in a way that leads to comedy. It seems reasonably logical to assume that you have to think slightly differently when trying to be funny than when you’re not, and that comedians can identify that they do this kind of thinking more often. Does this mean that comedians have psychotic traits? No. You’ll note that none of these new headlines are particularly good or attention grabbing. Does the headline that comedians have psychotic traits fulfil this function? Yes. Did they get my attention in that manner like some sort of chump?
New Headline 6: People who identify themselves as having a creative profession rate their own personality as having creative traits. Nobody is shocked until they claim it relates to psychosis which it doesn’t. I write about it like a chump.