Marshmallows and Remote Controls : Effort in Improv

I read a blog recently that reminded me of this experiment, and reframed it in a way that makes me think of how I approach learning in improv.

The article goes over a lot, the bit I am talking about is the experiment with the kids where they are given a sweet and told if they leave it then they can have two after the time limit. A third of the kids could not resist just eating the sweet right away, even though they could have had more just by waiting. The children that did wait tended to use coping mechanisms to distract themselves, like looking away or fidgeting.

This is interesting to me and is an example of two things I believe to be true.

1. You can’t remove habits, you have to replace them with something else.

2. We have biological habits as well as psychological habits.

So this means that we can’t just walk into improv classes and expect to be good, we have to understand our biological and mental habits, and replace them with new ones.

One of our biological habits is energy efficiency, which explains why people often contort themselves into ridiculous positions to pick up a remote control with their feet, drop it, shuffle it closer with a tentative toenail, then finally pull it up and change the channel too late to catch the start of Eastenders. That whole rigmarole actually takes less energy than standing up and sitting back down again, because you don’t have to raise your body weight up against gravity then lower it back down. It’s not laziness, it’s evolution from gathering food and navigating the landscape, using less energy is better when you have to forage for your food. We would not be alive today if our ancestors didn’t have that trait.

I think there are a lot of analogies to me made about inertia in improv, for example going for the easy laugh like a kid helplessly sniffing a marshmallow before shoving it in his gob, but it goes deeper for me.

When I go into a room full of people, on a fundamental level I have programming telling me not to exert myself and waste energy. Even though I live in a society where food is plentiful for me, I still have that ability to withdraw and even make up reasons why not making an effort is preferable.

“Well, I don’t like/trust these people.”

“I’m not my best today.”

“I’m not sure what I am doing so I will let the others go first and learn from them.”

On the other hand when I jump in excitedly with no excuses I feel scared and that wakes me up even more and I do my best improv, and I have the most fun. So for me learning to improvise is not about adding a whole new set of rules, it’s about changing my attitude on a basic level to one of safety and fun. That requires patience and self-understanding, and it also requires going out and being like that in the world. I really can’t learn that in a class or rehearsal, I can only teach myself that by taking risks in the real world, which really fire me up. Then I take that energy into the work, and it becomes more effort to not have fun.

So maybe that’s a technique? Not fighting your own inertia, but by stacking the odds so much in your favour that your inertia starts pulling you along instead of impeding you. By doing shows and surrounding yourself with people you trust and enjoy being with. I know that works for me. Get to the source, get out of your own way.


One Comment on “Marshmallows and Remote Controls : Effort in Improv”

  1. Interesting. To me impro teaches you to go back to being the child that eats the sweet early. That is, to go for the obvious, and not hold back.

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