New research published in Behavioral Sciences sheds light on how specific forms of humor are related to the role and functions of clown doctors. The findings highlight the positive and adaptive nature of humor in clowning, emphasizing the importance of playfulness and light-heartedness in creating a joyful atmosphere in healthcare environments.
The researchers were interested in studying the psychological characteristics of clown doctors, specifically their humor and playfulness, and how these characteristics relate to specific factors such as age, role, and experience. While healthcare clowning is a well-established method for providing relief to patients and their relatives during hospitalization, there was a lack of scientific studies evaluating the psychological aspects of clown doctors.
“Healthcare clowning nowadays is a worldwide practice and thousands of people decide to wear the clothes of clown doctors,” explained study author Alberto Dionigi, a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist.
“To date, there is no regulation, therefore healthcare clowning encompasses a large variety of practitioners, including both professional and volunteer clown doctors who undergo different types of training. As a clown doctor myself and researcher in this field, I do believe that research may help in a better understanding of this practice and in providing knowledge for these practitioners.”
“Specifically, although the clown is a comic figure, no study had investigated playfulness and the use of specific types of humor by clown doctors so we conducted this research along with Professor Carla Canestrari and Professor Alessandra Fermani working at the University of Macerata (Italy).”
The study aimed to evaluate the different types of humor utilized by clown doctors, using a model called the Comic Style Markers, which consists of eight comic styles: Fun, Humor, Nonsense, Wit, Irony, Satire, Sarcasm, and Cynicism. The lighter styles (Fun, Humor, Nonsense, and Wit) are associated with positive and social effects, while the darker styles (Irony, Satire, Sarcasm, and Cynicism) are based on mockery and ridicule.
The researchers also wanted to compare the differences in the use of these comic styles between two types of clown characters: the Whiteface and the Auguste. The Whiteface clown features a white-painted face and portrays a serious, authoritative persona, often engaging in sophisticated humor and sarcasm. On the other hand, the Auguste clown has a colorful, messy appearance and embodies a mischievous, playful nature, often engaging in physical comedy and silly antics.
Dionigi and his colleagues collected data from 210 clown doctors in Italy. The participants completed a questionnaire that included demographic information, questions about their clowning activity, the Comic Style Markers questionnaire to assess the use of different comic styles, and the Short Measure of Adult Playfulness questionnaire to assess playfulness.
To compare the clown doctors’ results with the general population, the researchers obtained a dataset from a previous study that validated the Comic Style Markers with a sample of 607 participants from the general population.
“Overall, the findings supported our hypotheses that both comic styles and playfulness are differently related to the level of experience and the role played by the clowns,” Dionigi told PsyPost. “In general, when considering the differences in comic styles between the sample of clown doctors and the general population, the results showed that the clowns reported significantly higher scores in Fun, Benevolent Humor, and Nonsense and lower in Cynicism compared to non-clowns.”
“Moreover, the participants exhibited higher levels of adaptive styles as opposed to maladaptive styles, with Sarcasm and Cynicism showing the lowest scores. These results are in line with the role clowns play in healthcare settings: they are required to use affiliative and positive forms of humor to amuse the audience.”
“Finally, the participants with more experience (i.e., > 9 years) tended to use less irony, sarcasm, and cynicism than those with less experience (i.e., < 9 years),” Dionigi explained. “This result may reflect the tendency of less experienced clowns to employ more maladaptive styles of humor.”
The researchers also found that the Whiteface clown doctors used more sarcasm and cynicism compared to their Auguste counterparts. This finding suggests that the Whiteface clowns, who embody a serious and authoritative persona, employed these specific forms of humor to create comic conflict and play off the contrasting nature of the two characters.
It’s important to note that the study has some limitations, including the sample being limited to Italian clown doctors and a primarily volunteer sample. Further research is needed to confirm these findings in different cultures and populations.
“The study of the psychological and relational aspects of clown doctors useful or detrimental in their practice is a field that needs to be better investigated,” Dionigi said
“This is the first study that focuses on playfulness and different forms of humor used by clown doctors, demonstrating specific differences between the two roles played and with the general population. Wide-ranging practitioners in this field, such as clowns, trainers, and researchers, may gain knowledge from these results. This study furnishes this assumption with a scientific background and provides empirical evidence that clowns must undergo ongoing training aimed at fostering these two aspects.”
The study, “Do Clowns Really Taste Funny? An Investigation of the Relationship between Humor and Playfulness in Clown Doctors“, was authored by Alberto Dionigi, Alessandra Fermani, and Carla Canestrari.