For some, the benefits can be even more significant: Researchers and clinical psychologists alike have begun to pay attention to improv, conducting studies or incorporate it into work with their patients. The improv stage, in theory, is a space free of judgment or fear of failure, making it an ideal environment for people who struggle with low self-esteem, social anxiety, or other types of anxiety disorders.
While not a substitute for therapy, some psychologists believe improv can be an effective complement, in part because of the way it mirrors the patient/therapist dynamic. In 2013, Gordon Bermant, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that outlined the similarities between improv and applied psychology, or the use of psychological research to solve real-world problems. “Both improv and applied psychology practices aim to increase personal awareness, interpersonal attentiveness, and trust,” he wrote.
The lack of planning and structure in improv means that performers must function without a safety net, but, as Bermant noted in his paper, “if all play authentically to each other, fear of failure loses its sting—a net of support is constructed from the openness, trust, and acceptance.” The relationship among members of an improv ensemble hinges on trust, as does the relationship between therapist and patient.
“The idea of a therapist holding a client in ‘unconditional positive regard’ describes a way of relating to others which is close to the ‘yes, and’ affirmations of improv,” Bermant told me. A key tenet of therapy is the guarantee that the therapist will not judge the client for what he or she says. Similarly, improv’s “yes, and” concept—one performer accepts another’s premise and adds to it—is built on the implicit promise that no idea will be shot down.
“The beauty of improv,” he said , “is that it is quintessentially a collective, cooperative form that rests completely on trust for the spark of creativity that can transport the players, briefly, into confidence-building interpersonal connections.”
According to Simon Rego, the director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, performing improv could function as informal exposure therapy for people who struggle with social anxiety or fear speaking in front of crowds. In exposure therapy, psychologists help patients to gradually confront their fears, working up from the slightly nerve-racking (like performing in front of only one other person) to the full-blown worst-case scenario (like “bombing” in front of a large crowd).
“For people who feel anxious socially, getting up in front of a crowd repeatedly would create an excellent opportunity to reduce their fear—no matter what the outcome,” Rego said. “It will either turn out better than they thought so they'll feel less anxious next time, or if it does not go well, they will learn that they can cope with it.” Rego practices cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps people change their thoughts and behaviors in order to change how they feel. It’s a common treatment for anxiety and the idea is to teach patients to question negative thought patterns by identifying “cognitive distortions,” or gathering evidence for and against their thoughts. At the same time, they learn effective ways to alter problematic behavioral patterns, like facing feared situations instead of avoiding them.