The key to being insanely funny may be a touch of insanity--and that's no joke.
A new study suggests that comedians exhibit high levels of psychotic personality traits. This finding adds to a growing body of research that links these traits with creativity.
"The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis -- both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," study co-author Dr. Gordon Claridge, a psychologist at the University of Oxford in England, told Reuters.
For the study, 404 male and 119 female comedians completed an online survey designed to gauge four traits known to be associated with schizophrenic and psychotic tendencies: unusual experiences (magical thinking and belief in paranormal events); cognitive disorganization (distractibility and difficulty focusing thoughts); "introverted anhedonia" (a reduced ability to feel social and physical pleasure, like avoiding intimacy); and "impulsive non-conformity" (a tendency towards impulsive, antisocial behavior, often suggesting a lack of mood-related self-control).
The comedians' scores were compared to the scores of 364 actors and a control group of 831 people in non-creative professions who also took the survey.
What happened? The comedians scored higher on all four psychotic traits than did the non-performers. Actors scored higher than the control group on three of the traits, but not on "introverted anhedonia."
"The most important observation is that comedians showed a strange mixture of extroverted, impulsive traits and introverted, rather depressive traits," Claridge told The Huffington Post in an email.
Claridge told Reuters that full-blown psychosis would make humor hard but added that "in its lesser form it can increase people's ability to associate odd or unusual things or to think 'outside the box.' Equally, manic thinking -- which is common in people with bipolar disorder -- may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections."
Spike Milligan, a British comedian who had a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder provides a notable example.
"Milligan certainly used the freely associating thought processes of his manic states to generate the zany humor and the wildly ridiculous ideas that were the hallmark of his comedy," the researchers wrote in their study.
For some comedians, standup may serve as a sort of coping mechanism for emotional problems.
"Comedians tend to be slightly withdrawn, introverted people who may not always want to socialize, and their comedy is almost an outlet for that, Claridge told BBC. "It's a kind of self-medication."
But the findings, while provocative, only go so far, according to Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
"These are interesting findings, but we must make sure we guard against the 'mad creative genius' stereotype," he told The Guardian. "Mental illnesses like schizophrenia can affect anyone, whether they are creative or not."
The study was published online Jan. 16 in The British Journal of Psychiatry.