Comedians Are Not Psychotic

Comedy mask outside a theatre. There's also a tragedy one. This isn't proof of anything sciencey.

Comedy mask outside a theatre. There’s also a tragedy one. This isn’t proof of anything sciencey.

“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.

A vacuum. Science hates these.

A vacuum. Science hates these.

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”.

A tragedy mask at a theatre. It's sad because of badly communicated science.

A tragedy mask at a theatre. It’s sad because of badly communicated science.

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.

Women are Funny.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google "funny women" to find an image for your blog post.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google “funny women” to find an image for your blog post.

When you type the phrase, “women comedians” into Google the second suggestion that appears is “women comedians aren’t funny.”Now I’ve no idea how Google works, probably librarian-trained crows, but this does seem like a worryingly common-place opinion. I have had a discussion fairly recently which involved the other person saying, “But women just aren’t funny” which made me concerned that the person I was talking to had never met or spoken to a woman. And the person I was talking to was a woman! Probably still is.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s funny. What people find humorous, while sharing many commonalities, varies wildly and so does what people say and do in an effort to be funny. Farts! This variation is obviously true of women who much like snowflakes, fingerprints or human beings are all individual and unique. Some women will be funnier on average than other women and funnier on average than some men.  The funniest woman is likely as funny as the funniest man. I don’t even though how you’d reliably judge “funniest”. What unit would it be measured in? MilliMillicans?

It’s not up to me to defend women. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Declaring that women simply lack the ability to be funny is odd though. While there are many theories as to what is humorous, one prevalent idea is that laughter comes with incongruity. This theory states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity between a concept and the real thing in relation to that concept. If this were the case (and it certainly seems to be at least some of the time) if you claim that women can’t be funny then you are claiming that women can’t conceive of ideas and situations not matching. This is an ironically difficult notion to conceive of.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

I’m not especially interested in whether the ideas that women aren’t funny or that women aren’t as funny as men are true or not. They’re blatantly not.  The Funny Women Awards have just celebrated their 11th year with the 2013 winners being duo Twisted Loaf. The Funny Women Awards unlikely to have years where they can’t award anything due to women being unusually mirthless for a select 365 days. There are multiple examples of very funny women including Sarah Pascoe (@sarapascoe), Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75), Rachel Parris (@iamrachelparris), and Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (@Scriblit). I have purposefully not made this list extensive as I am sure to miss out some excellent individuals and some idiot is bound to sweep a paw across the list and state that “None of dem are funny” as if it were an objective truism rather than a subjective comedic preference.

I’m more interested in considering the arguments people use to justify this opinion and whether they stand up to scrutiny (they won’t). I’m going to use a vague biopsychosocial approach to do this. Not because I think detractors of female comedy, or as it is sometimes known “comedy” do so but because it’s a reasonably simple way to manage the ideas.


Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (when he wasn’t busy tweeting about students being fat) proposed that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. Sexual selection: good name for a part of evolutionary theory, bad name for a box of confectionary. He argues that humour (which he states has little survival value) emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as intelligence. On this basis if you argue that women aren’t or can’t be funny you would be arguing that either women can’t use humour to show their intelligence (clearly wrong), that they can but they don’t (clearly wrong because of examples) or that if they did men might not appreciate it (ahem). Women are showing intelligence through humour and people are ignoring it or at worse threatened by it? They would have to be pretty small-minded, insecure people. At this stage you can assume I am giving meaningful looks.

Another evolutionary psychology theory takes a break from copying Rudyard Kipling and argues that, like male deer clashing antlers, humour is produced by males competitively to impress potential mates for breeding. Consistent with this theory is research that females indicate a preference for mates who makes them laugh, whereas males prefer a mate who laughs at their humour.

However the data are not entirely consistent with this view. Most studies find male humour appeals most to other men.  In purely evolutionary terms, if you are in search of a mate to breed with, attracting a bunch of guffaws and their supposed sexual advances from members of the same gender isn’t the best move. Secondarily this theory in no way explains why women can’t do the same thing. If you’re arguing for a theory, it’s not really enough to state that they just don’t. Any attempts by MRI to catch the ovaries strangling jokes before they leave the body have thus far failed. So we’re left with a theory that tries to make humour the exclusive domain of rutting men, but fails like a pleasant look on Piers Morgan’s face.


Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs has said fewer women become comedians because they are not so inclined to show-off or be competitive in conversation. Lee Mack stated “I am only quoting other scientific reports on it.  When men sit around together and talk they are very competitive… When you get six women in a room together they share a lot more…and it’s a more interactive. “This idea may have links to the evolutionary theories seen previously.

The concept that men are more likely to do stand-up comedy or just be funny because they are more competitive than women is pervasive. Generally, research into how groups of single and mixed sexes converse agree with what Lee Mack is saying. A sentence I never thought I’d type. But these are just tendencies. Women may be more likely to support each other in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all do it all the time. They can also be competitive and try to show off. Same goes for men for support and chances are it’s largely context dependent.

These studies investigated conversation and weren’t about being funny and/or a stand-up comedian. Just because a woman is on average more likely not to be competitive in conversation, doesn’t mean she won’t change her style of interaction when “performing” to her friends or performing onstage as a comedian.

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn't trying to be "sexy".

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn’t trying to be “sexy”.

Finally and more importantly, competition and showing off doesn’t necessarily equate to funnier. For some reason people who make this argument seem to be focussing on one style of comedy. One-upmanship is fine for some things (human pyramids and so on), but a lot of comedy relies on interaction, support and listening e.g. improvisation, sketch comedy. Stand-up itself doesn’t need to be competitive as such and many a skilled comedian can build a hilarious act through audience interaction and support. Just watch Dara Ó Briain open a show.

Social (and some psychology)

The entertainment industry seems to agree with the idea that women are not or can’t be funny, or at least can’t be as funny as men. One figure tossed around is that only 10% of stand-up comedians are women and it’s relatively rare to see more than one woman on one of the ubiquitous comedy panel shows.  I don’t have the data to argue that many more women want to be or are funny and hard-working enough to be successful stand-up comedians and lack or don’t see the opportunity, but given societal and prevalent psychological bias it seems a likely explanation.

It would seem that across an alarming swathe of society, humour and the production of humour is not valued or even recognised in women.  If you think women aren’t funny and as a result ignore it when they are then what’s the incentive for women to be funny? Lo and behold you fulfil your own bias. Or you try to. if you hold the ridiculous opinion that women aren’t funny and as proof try to point out a non-existent lack of funny women then by your own logic you only have yourself to blame. Luckily there are women who defy this societal bias to produce excellent comedy.

Research shows humorous items are often remembered more successfully, in a phenomenon known as the humour effect. For example in one study (linked to already in these ramblings) related to providing funny captions, the items judged as funnier were remembered better. The analyses also provided evidence for a humour-based retrieval bias.  Individuals of both genders tended to misattribute humorous captions to male writers. This was true both for misremembering captions whose author’s sex the participants knew and for when participants were only guessing the sex of a caption author. So again it’s not that women can’t or aren’t being funny, it’s that due to existing societal bias, when they are you don’t remember or worse, you remember the humour and think it was a man that did it. Again you only have yourself to blame for thinking there are no funny women. “I don’t remember ever doing this!” you might shout. Quite.

The Guff at the Long-Awaited End

Ultimately there appears to be no strong argument that women can’t be funny or aren’t funny or aren’t as funny as men.  If you think there are, then you are contributing to the biased social and psychological forces that contrive give that appearance.  This isn’t surprising and I’m sorry if any of this has come across as patronising.  I don’t think that people who hold that opinion have even though about it that much other than as a subtle impact of prejudice. Then why bother taking-apart the arguments behind women being “not funny” at all? To paraphrase Josh Whedon, “I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…”