Dr. Frederick Heide at CSPP Explores the Psychological Benefits of Musical Comedy

Whether he’s writing a musical comedy or a psychology research paper, you can tell Dr. Frederick Heide, a faculty member in the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), likes to get people thinking — and laughing. After all, he’s come up with titles like “Humor restructuring and psychotherapy, or, people who see shrinks should have their head examined,” and “Guys and Does: The deer hunting musical that promises more bang for your buck.”

There’s a method to his mirthfulness. An associate professor in the clinical psychology PsyD program at the California School of Professional Psychology’s San Francisco campus since 1983, Professor Heide combines his passion for musical comedy with his psychology research on its benefits for the mind.

“I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have careers in two areas I dearly love: psychology and musical theater,” Dr. Heide said. “Although they’re quite distinct, both are about illuminating the human condition and exploring our potential. The research Dr. Natalie Porter, clinical psychology professor at CSPP and I have been conducting suggests that musical theater is more than just entertainment. It can also shift attitudes and inspire us to be kinder and more tolerant. In other words, musical theater seems to be a way of pursuing the goals of clinical psychology in a broader forum. And it has the added benefit that people find it invigorating and actively seek it out.”

Among the more than 15 shows Associate Professor Heide has co-created are the sci-fi football musical “Packer Fans from Outer Space” and the metaphysical musical comedy “Belgians in Heaven.” The theatrical shows incorporate social learning principles to promote positive social behavior. Dr. Heide also has studied and co-created several shows with Paul Sills, founding director of Chicago’s famed Second City Theatre and school of improvisation.

In 2012, Dr. Heide and two fellow researchers published a study in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, describing how a new musical changed people’s attitudes toward hunters and hunting. That musical was “Guys and Does,” which Dr. Heide wrote with Lee Becker. The show is about three men with varying attitudes toward the sport, plus “a magical talking white buck who articulates the philosophy that hunting has ancient and noble roots.”

“The main protagonist models ethical hunting behavior and is rewarded both emotionally and financially, whereas an antagonist models unethical behavior, is punished and then becomes a transitional model toward positive behavior,” the researchers wrote.

“Although the play also explored multiple themes unrelated to hunting, such as male bonding, generosity and forgiveness, there was sufficient focus on hunting behavior to predict that audiences would develop more positive attitudes toward it as a result of attendance.”

The researchers surveyed 200 people who saw a 2009 production of the musical at the American Folklore Theater in Ephraim, Wisconsin, (where Dr. Heide is founder, founding board president, board member, artistic adviser, playwright and performer). Prior to the performance, they filled out a questionnaire that gauged their attitude toward hunting and hunters.

Within 24 hours of seeing the show, the same audience members completed and mailed a second survey. They were asked to rate the show using a variety of measures, including the extent to which they found it intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging. They also retook the hunting-attitudes questionnaire.

Dr. Heide and his co-researchers found “an increase in approval of hunting” in the post-show survey. Specifically, they found a shift in attitudes toward three of questionnaire’s assertions: “Hunting is cruel and inhumane to animals,” “Hunting teaches skills needed to get by in life” and “Hunting has heritage and cultural values worth preserving.”

“All three items relate directly to points modeled by characters in the show,” they noted. They also found a correlation between this change in attitude and an audience member’s “strength of emotional response to the production.” While careful not to claim cause and effect, they found a link between experiencing an intense gut-level response to the material and shifting one’s position on the issues it brought up.

Overall, the study suggests that even comedic, thought-provoking material gives audiences a more memorable, engaging experience. That’s the kind of research that keeps Dr. Heide motivated and his students learning that the arts can have profound psychological impacts. Or, as he might say, up on stage, the buck doesn’t necessarily stop here.