Research suggests psychological health benefits of improvisation

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A paper recently published in the peer-reviewed journal “Thinking Skills and Creativity,” suggests that improvisational theater exercises may improve psychological health in adults.

The paper, “Improv promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being,” found that the unpredictable, yet positive and engaging, nature of improvisational theater exercises can improve an individual’s mood, and their abilities to think creatively and to cope with the unknown.

“There are a lot of people claiming that improv improves their lives, yet there’s very little experimental data to support those claims,” said study lead author Peter Felsman, a postdoctoral associate at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. “When people attribute changes in their lives to improv training, there are usually infinite other explanations for that improvement - internal motivations, the people they meet, the fact that they got out of the house.

“We wanted to see if improv training leads to changes that anecdotal evidence suggests. The best way to explore that is by conducting an experiment where you can control for other factors.”

The study is among the first to use a randomized experiment to study the effects of improvisation.

In one of the experiments conducted by Felsman and his colleagues, undergraduate students were randomly assigned to engage in either 20 minutes of improvisational exercises or 20 minutes of similar yet scripted interactions. For example, those assigned to participate in improv exercises paired up to create a character together; in the other group, pairs or participants traded off reading predetermined text describing a character. Before and after the experiment, participants completed surveys to measure three things. They were asked about their uncertainty tolerance, which is an individual’s comfort with unpredictability; their affective well-being, which relates to emotion and mood; and their ability to engage in divergent, or creative, thinking.

“We are just beginning to explore experimentally what improv could lead to and what features of improv lead to what outcomes,” said Felsman, who is also a researcher at Stony Brook University’s Social Competence and Research Lab in the Department of Psychology.

“Those who participated in the improvisational exercises reported significant increases in uncertainty tolerance and affective well-being when compared to those who participated in scripted control exercises, and increases in divergent thinking when compared to individual unscripted control exercises.”

“I think if you’re someone looking for an activity that may improve how you feel, this paper suggests that maybe you should try improv. It seems like on average, it’s a good thing that offers benefits other social interactions do not.”

The paper was co-authored by Sanuri Gunawardena and Colleen M. Seifert, both of the University of Michigan.

“We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of the impact of improv,” said Felsman. “It’s exciting to be part of a burgeoning research base for understanding improv. I think there’s a case to be made that improv can do these things - increase creativity and increase uncertainty tolerance. It makes you feel good.”