Perhaps the reason comedians make us laugh is because they show high levels of psychotic traits, suggests new research from the University of Oxford in the UK.

They also score high on introverted and extroverted personality traits, say the researchers.

Writing in the latest online issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers explain how the popular belief that creativity is linked to madness has led to many studies, yet despite comedy being a prime example of creativity, little research has been done specifically on comedy and humor.

Co-author Gordon Claridge, Emeritus Professor of Abnormal Psychology at Oxford’s department of Experimental Psychology, describes what they found:

“The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

But while schizophrenic psychosis itself can be detrimental to humor, its lesser form can help people “think outside the box” and associate ideas in odd or unusual ways, he explains, and adds:

“Equally, manic thinking, which is common in people with bipolar disorder, may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections.”

For their study, Prof. Claridge and colleagues invited 523 comedians, mainly from the UK, US and Australia – 404 men and 119 women – to fill in an online questionnaire used to assess psychotic traits in healthy people.

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Funny but psychotic? In the latest study, comedians scored higher on all measures of psychosis, compared with actors and the general public.

The assessment measures four aspects of psychosis:

  • Unusual Experiences – believing in telepathy and paranormal events.
  • Cognitive Disorganisation – experiencing difficulty focusing thoughts and being easily distracted.
  • Introvertive Anhedonia – possessing a lesser ability to feel social and physical pleasure, including avoiding intimacy.
  • Impulsive Non-Conformity – having a tendency towards impulsive, antisocial behaviour.

Prof. Claridge explains that the traits are termed “psychotic” because they “represent healthy equivalents of features such as moodiness, social introversion and the tendency to lateral thinking.”

He and his colleagues also invited two other groups to fill in the questionnaire: a group of 364 actors (another group used to performing before an audience), and a general group of 831 people in non-creative professions.

When they analyzed the responses from all the participants, the researchers found that, compared with the general group, the comedians had much higher scores in all four psychotic traits.

And unusually, the comedians had high scores for extroverted personality traits (assessed from their responses on the Impulsive Non-Conformity scale) and introverted personality traits (assessed by the Introvertive Anhedonia scale).

The actors also showed marked differences to the general group – they scored higher on three of the scales, but did not show high levels of introverted personality traits.

Prof. Claridge says:

Our study shows that, as creative people, comedians rate highly on the same personality traits as those regularly observed in other creative individuals.”

Meanwhile, another study reported in October 2013 suggests we have reason to be grateful for the skill of comedians, as a team of Swiss researchers found that laughter and humor can increase pain tolerance and improve quality of life.