Psychologists find sense of humour predicts depression and suicidal thinking – does this partly explain the Robin Williams tragedy?
Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
Victoria Ando, from St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford has recently published a study entitled ‘Psychotic traits in comedians’, which uncovers a link between the manic side of bipolar disorder, and comic performance.
Published in January 2014, the research argues for links between mania and comedy through very high mood combining with rapidly changing ideas.
The research was co-authored with Professor Gordon Claridge and Ken Clark, and these authors point to the notable example of famous English comedian Spike Milligan, who experienced manic-depressive episodes throughout his life.
Victoria Ando and colleagues argue that Milligan used the freely associating thought processes of his manic states to generate the zany ideas that were the hallmark of his jesting. The same could possibly be argued about Robin Williams.
The study, published in the ‘British Journal of Psychiatry’, suggests another possible link between being a professional comedian and despair. Depression might motivate a talented humourist to find ways of alleviating the low mood. Joking becomes a form of self-medication.
The authors, based at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, and Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, quote poet and writer Antonin Artaud, who himself experienced serious mental illness, writing, ‘No one has ever written, painted or sculpted, modelled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell’.
The study compared 523 comedians with 364 actors, and found comics behaved like other creative groups in showing high levels of psychotic personality traits.
The most striking result, however, was the comedians’ unusual personality profile, featuring ‘introverted anhedonia’ and ‘extraverted impulsiveness’. This combines seemingly opposite personality characteristics: unsociable, depressive traits and more extraverted, manic-like features.
Intriguingly, female comics scored even higher than male comedians on ‘Impulsive Non-conformity’ – a tendency towards impulsive, antisocial behaviour, often suggesting a lack of self-control linked to moods. One speculation is perhaps female comics have to be more extreme on these traits in the first place, in order to break into the profession.
The authors of the study conclude that this profile of a comedian represents the personality equivalent of bipolar disorder.
Victoria Ando and colleagues point out that humourist Stephen Fry, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, confessed to a suicide bid, and has explained the link with his sense of humour.
They quote Fry as referring to his role as the jokey compere of the funny quiz show, QI: ’There are times when I’m doing QI and I’m going ‘‘ha ha, yeah, yeah’’, and inside I’m going ‘‘I want to fucking die. I . . . want . . . to . . . fucking . . . die’’.’
Fry’s comment, the authors argue, illustrate how two conflicting emotional traits typically found in comics might be aroused concurrently, one being used to cope with the other.
Psychoanalysts refer to this as the ‘manic defence’.
But if humour is supposed to defend against low mood – when doesn’t it work? Why does the depression sometimes break through the manic defence, occasionally leading to suicide? Suicidal levels of depression have been linked to many successful comedians, including Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams
One possible answer comes from recent psychological research which suggests the secret might lie in the style of humour you adopt, as your way of coping with life’s adversities.
The study entitled ‘The moderating effect of humor style on the relationship between interpersonal predictors of suicide and suicidal ideation’, investigated the psychological impact of two positive (afﬁliative and self-enhancing) and two negative (aggressive and self-defeating) styles of humour.
The research from Oklahoma State University has investigated whether it’s possible to distinguish different senses of humour people tend to use, and whether this can be revealing of your personality.
An ‘afﬁliative’ humour style refers to a tendency to facilitate relationships, reducing interpersonal stress with playful teasing. ‘Self-enhancing’ humour involves having a humorous outlook on life, especially during stressful times.
‘Aggressive’ humour refers to disparaging used to manipulate others, such as sarcasm, ridicule, and hostile teasing. Self-defeating humour involves amusing others by doing or saying comical things at one’s own expense.
The authors of this research, Raymond Tucker, LaRicka Wingate, Victoria O’Keefe, Meredith Slish, Matt Judah and Sarah Rhoades-Kerswill found those who naturally use self-defeating humour are at more of a risk for suicidal thinking when experiencing common stresses, such as feelings of ‘thwarted belongingness’ or ‘perceived burdensomeness’.
‘Thwarted Belongingness’ is a feeling of absence of connectedness to close others, and a lack of caring from others. ‘Perceived Burdensomeness’ refers to the belief that one is a burden on others. Both ‘thwarted belongingness’ and ‘perceived burdensomeness’ have been found to be important in explaining how suicidal people feel.
The study found that it was the ‘afﬁliative’ humour style which was particularly protective against feeling suicidal. Of all four humour styles, only ‘afﬁliative’ protected significantly against suicidal feelings. Affiliative humour might even defend against depression.
The authors conclude that their results indicate that the ability to use afﬁliative humour to strengthen interpersonal connections and ease social tensions, may be particularly protective against thoughts of suicide.
So humour may serve to be either a buffer or a risk factor for suicide – it depends on the kind of comedy deployed. Afﬁliative humour seems to serve as a buffer, while self-defeating jokes reveal a more negative coping style, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and burdensomeness.
This study suggests that clinicians treating depression might even in future consider monitoring the sense of humour being deployed by their patients, as indicating risk of suicide.
The authors of the study published in the academic journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, argue that those who use self-defeating humour may also be more likely to feel socially disconnected and burdensome to others. Their flaws are constantly being confirmed, through hilarity, from close others.
After the Robin Williams tragedy, is it possible many of us were too busy laughing, to see through the jokes, to the pain that is the real punch line?