The Secret History of Improvisation in World War II



In World War II, famous psychologist Urie Bronfebrenner developed an improvisational theater task to evaluate candidate's suitability for challenging assignments behind enemy lines.

I just came across a fascinating article*, published in 1948, describing the use of improvisation in personality assessment. Even more fascinating is that the lead author is the famous developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, who's not really known for this type of research. (He's probably most famous for co-founding the U.S. Head Start program in the 1960s and 1970s.) Bronfenbrenner starts the article by giving us the amazing history: During World War II, many American psychologists were drafted into the war effort. Working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), they were asked to screen all of the "special ops" forces before they were chosen to go overseas. Bronfenbrenner describes some of the positions:

member of a research team working on the economic geography of the Orient, radio operator for a unit of the French Underground, propaganda writer for a radio station in the Pacific beaming programs to Japan, leader of a team of saboteurs to be dropped behind German lines, ...physician for a detachment behind enemy lines in Burma...these assignments called for active operations under considerable stress.

How to identify the men who would perform most effectively? Raw IQ wasn't enough; many of their assessments attempted to measure creativity and adaptability, as well. By the way, many of the leading creativity researchers in the 1950s got their start working for the OSS during WWII, as I describe in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity:

  • J. P. Guilford, who gave the legendary 1950 APA lecture on "Creativity" and founded the Aptitudes Research Project at the University of Southern California in the early 1950s
  • Donald MacKinnon, who founded the Institute for Personality Assessment Research (IPAR) at UC Berkeley in the early 1949
  • Morris Stein, who founded the Center for the Study of Creativity and Mental Health at the University of Chicago in 1952

Until reading this 1948 article, I never knew that Bronfenbrenner was a part of this WWII effort. In fact, in a footnote he thanks MacKinnon and the staff of "Station S" for their "active participation in the construction and administration of improvisations." Bronfenbrenner's contribution was to develop a personality assessment technique that asked candidates to perform improvised scenarios, on stage, in front of an audience of research psychologists and other candidates. How did these guys learn about improvisation? In 1948, there was no Second City theater, no Chicago school of improvisation. Viola Spolin had not yet published her influential book of improv games for children. Bronfenbrenner attributes the inspiration to Jacob Moreno's psychodrama...and from my studies of improv history, I know that Moreno formed the first staged improv theater ensemble, which performed all over New York City in the 1920s, even at Carnegie Hall, doing improv games that he later adapted for the therapeutic technique that he called "psychodrama." (The history is in my 2003 book Improvised Dialogues, if you'd like to learn more...A lot of things we associate with Chicago improv were actually started by Moreno in the 1920s.) Based on a lot of trial and error, the psychologists learned that the best improv scenarios had the following characteristics:

  1. Relatively free structuring. If you give too many details of plot or role, it inhibits spontaneity and results in "conventionalized responses."
  2. Departure from real-life role. The subject should be asked to perform a role far removed from his everyday life situation.
  3. Focus on classic conflict situations. These are more likely to evoke "clinically significant behavior."

This is so true! Any contemporary improviser knows that these three features really do result in good improvisations. They ended up using six scenarios, each with two actors, that satisfied these criteria. Prior to each scenario, they assigned each actor a role and gave him a situation description (hidden from the other actor). Here's an example:

Scenario 1A. The first actor is Mr. Thomas, the superintendend of schools, and the second is Mr. Green, a high school teacher. Mr. Thomas is told that Mr. Green is 35 years old and is a bachelor, and you have heard persistent rumors "regarding Mr. Green's sexual conduct." Mr. Green's directions simply say "the Superintendent would like to see you in his office."

Here's another one, in the "heterosexual relationship" category:

Scenario 3B. Both actors receive the same instructions: Mary and Dick have been "going around" together for over a year. Whenever you're alone, you find yourselves becoming more and more intimate. Things have reached a point where there are "no holds barred." You have been thinking about this and you decide to talk about it in private.

By the way, keep in mind that there are no women candidates for these underground military tasks during World War II. Each man being considered for the assignment takes the male role in one situation, and the female role in the next. (!) So how did they use these improvisations to evaluate a personality? The authors admit that they haven't figured out how to quantify it. But they describe several overall features of the performance that they believe are important indicators:

  • The way that he "fills in the gaps in the partially structured improvisation." How he structures his own role and that of his partner.
  • "The subject's sensitivity and adaptation to the behavior of his partner." And listen to this improv truth, which has been rediscovered many times since: "Even though the subject may have planned his course of action in advance, he is usually forced into spontaneity by unforseen and uncontrollable elements in the behavior of his fellow-participant."
  • Consistency and variability in behavior from one scenario to another. "These differences often fall into a consistent pattern."
  • The degree to which the subject is able to stay in a particular role. "This variation povides a cue to the subjects' particular sources of satisfaction or anxiety."
  • The manner in which the subject handles the emotional aspects inherent in the plots. What is the balance between intellect and emotions? Do emotions override "inhibiting barriers"? Is there a tendency to avoid emotion through "intellectualization or socially stereotyped response"?
  • Finally, how does the subject permit the situation to end? Do they seek a compromise? Do they insist on carrying their own point? Do they leave it hanging? If there is unresolved tension, what is the emotional tone?

The other dozen or so candidates sat in the audience, and they were asked to discuss each performance after it was completed. Obviously, the language and the concerns are specific to the time period. Still, I am extremely impressed with the creativity and the perceptiveness of the researchers who developed these exercises. Who knew that improvisation was used to help the United States win in World War II?

*Urie Bronfenbrenner and Theodore M. Newcomb, 1948. "Improvisations--an application of psychodrama in personality diagnosis." Sociatry, Volume 4, pages 367-382.

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