New research published in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology explores the idea that organized play that is mentally absorbing can reduce anxiety and stress among adults. The researchers found that while absorption does play a role in improvisational comedy, the stress-reducing effects may not extend outside the improv context.
Cognitive scientists use the term “psychological absorption” to describe a personality trait defined by a readiness for deep involvement in self-altering experiences. This type of focused attention has been observed in certain religious practices, such as speaking in tongues and engaging in deep prayer, and has been suggested as one of the mechanisms linking religion to reduced stress.
Cara Ocobock, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame and fellow at the Eck Institute for Global Health, and her colleagues wanted to test the idea that absorption may play a similar stress-reducing role in non-religious contexts.
“This paper is far outside my area of expertise which is more focused on human biology (particularly metabolic physiology) under extreme conditions of environment and physical activity level,” Ocobock told PsyPost.
“However, that is the beauty of having friends and colleagues who do excellent and exciting work in different realms of anthropology. Dr. Christopher Lynn, my friend and co-author on this paper, is much more well versed in questions of stress and absorption, which he studied among Pentecostal congregations in upstate New York.”
The researchers proposed that skilled adult play can be psychologically absorbing and may function to alleviate distress and anxiety. According to the researchers, a great example of such play is improvisational comedy.
“Improv relies on unscripted and improvised performances, but also encourages audience suggestions and participation,” Ocobock and colleagues say. “The four basic tenets of improv—accept all offers, build on those offers, make your partner look good, and there are no mistakes—stress vivid focus on the present moment, fellow performers, and audience and the alternate reality performers generate in real time (Wasson 2017). As such, improv troupes are ideal for studying the potential anxiety reducing effects of absorptive play among adults.”
Ocobock and her team focused on a sample of four women and eight men who were members of a comedy improv theatre in New York. The subjects were between the ages of 26 and 53, attended rehearsals about once a week, and performed 3 to 5 times a week. The researchers aimed to explore the effects of improv experience and openness to absorption on stress (as measured by cortisol levels) on days when the participants were not practicing improv.
At the start of the study, all participants completed a 34-item Tellegen Absorption Scale which measured openness to self-altering experiences with statements like, “I imagine some things so vividly that they hold my attention as a good movie or story does.” Throughout the study, the participants provided salivary samples and mood assessments at different time points. These time points were in two-day blocks: a rehearsal day and the subsequent day, a performance day and the subsequent day, and a non-improv day and the subsequent day.
The researchers compared the cortisol tests and mood assessments within these two-day measures. The findings revealed that, on average, improv days (rehearsal or performance) were associated with significantly higher positive mood.
The authors discuss how the role-playing aspect of improv might promote positive mental health. “By taking on such roles, they become absorbed in the fictional scenario and portray emotions associated with the parameters of a scene or interaction and may even experience the feelings commensurate with said emotions depending on the degree of absorption in the role,” Ocobock and colleagues write in their study. This complete involvement in alternate emotions may offer an escape from current realities and distress.
Next, the findings revealed a positive link between absorption and cortisol on days when the participants were practicing improv. As the authors say, this suggests that absorption does play a role in the focused attention needed for rehearsing and performing improvisational comedy.
However, the researchers did not find evidence that improv experience and absorption reduced stress on non-improv days — contradicting their predictions. The researchers say this lack of effect might be explained by the fact that most of the comedy troupe members had a considerable degree of past experience, and none were novices.
“This was a small study with only 12 participants included. The results could change drastically with a larger study or with the inclusion of more ‘big-time’ comedy improv troupes such as Improv Olympics or The Upright Citizen Brigade,” Ocobock said. “Furthermore, this was a cross-sectional study where all of the participants had a similar level of improv experience. It would be illuminating to conduct a longitudinal study following folks as they start improv through to when they have multiple years of experience to fully understand the stress relieving effects as well as the role of focused training in adult play to improve absorption.”
The researchers say that it is not clear whether practicing improv might offer benefits outside the improv context. The authors suggest that being in an improv group may not be as influential to everyday life as being a practicing member of a religious group. Nevertheless, their research offers a model for exploring the possible mental health advantages of organized adult play.
“This was a fun study, one where the participants were super excited to participant and hear the results. I would love to see this project move forward with a longitudinal study,” Ocobock added.
The study, “Organized Adult Play and Stress Reduction: Testing the Absorption Hypothesis in a Comedy Improv Theater”, was authored by Cara Ocobock, Christopher D. Lynn, Mallika Sarma, and Lee T. Gettler.