Psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus

Last weekend, I attended the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare conference in Melbourne. An inspiring conference during which I learned more about the psychological and physical health of performing artists in a range of different domains, including ballet and music. At this conference, I presented the findings of a recent study (van Rens & Filho, in press) about psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus arts. For this study, 248 circus artist completed an online survey containing measures of sensation, emotion regulation and agency (Barlow et al., 2013), personality (using the “Big Five”; Costa & McCrae, 1992), accidents and near misses as well as demographic information.

Dr. Fleur van Rens presenting at ASPAH conference
ASPAH presentation

Predictors of accidents and near misses

We used the data from the survey to create a model which predicts accidents in contemporary circus arts. Our findings showed that the personality trait conscientiousness (i.e., being self-disciplined, diligent, and careful), experiences of emotion regulation (experiencing that circus increased control over one’s emotions), and the perceived risk associated with the circus disciplines predicted accidents and near misses. Specifically, artists who score high on conscientiousness experienced less accidents and near misses. Artists who perceived the risk associated with their circus discipline to be high, and artists who experienced more emotion regulation during participation in their circus discipline were more likely to experience accidents and near misses. Unlike artists in other domains such as music and dance (Feist, 1998), circus artist scored high on the personality trait conscientiousness. It seems that this could protect circus artists from experiencing accidents.

Not all circus disciplines are the same

I also want to highlight an important secondary purpose of the study. Most scientific research about contemporary circus arts has classified circus artists from a range of disciplines (e.g., clowns, acrobats, object manipulators) all together under the umbrella ‘circus artists’. No distinctions between their respective circus disciplines were made. To me this seemed problematic. Therefore, we conducted statistical analyses to explore differences among circus artists in the disciplines aerial acrobatics, floor acrobatics, and object manipulation.

girl in lyra

Our findings showed that aerial acrobats scored particularly high on conscientiousness, significantly higher than object manipulators (floor acrobats scored somewhere in the middle, not significantly different to aerial acrobats or object manipulators). This high score on conscientiousness is consistent with efforts from aerial acrobats to create an illusion of risk and danger, while simultaneously engaging in preventative behaviour to reduce the actual risks of accidents (for example by engaging in equipment checks, and carefully selecting relatively safe tricks to perform). Further, aerial acrobats scored higher on the personality trait agreeableness than object manipulators, perhaps this reflects the amount of teamwork and trust involved in (particularly group/duo) aerial acrobatics acts. We also found that aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics were seen as equally high-risk, meaning that the consequences of mistakes or accidents were deemed equally detrimental to the physical health of the artists. Object manipulation was seen as significantly more low-risk compared to aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics. However, floor acrobats reported experiencing the most accidents, scoring significantly higher than aerial acrobats and object manipulators. Floor acrobats also experienced significantly more near misses than aerial acrobats.

What does this mean?

First, our results confirmed the expectation that conscientiousness, emotion regulation, and perceived risk are predictors of accidents and near misses. Experiences of sensation (i.e., chasing an adrenaline rush) did not predict this, neither were there differences between circus disciplines on experiences of sensation. Second, the findings suggest that we cannot simply group all circus artists together in scientific research. Instead, we need to start investigating differences between circus disciplines to better understand the costs, demands, and benefits of the different contemporary circus disciplines. Finally, the findings emphasise that it is important to focus on floor acrobats when it comes to accident prevention. This may also have implications for research investigating acute and chronic injuries among circus artists.


Our study is available ahead of print now:

Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Not just clowning around: investigating psychological mechanisms underlying accidents in a heterogeneous group of contemporary circus artists. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. or download the full-text accepted version for free here.

Other references:

Barlow, M., Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2013). Great expectations: Different high-risk activities satisfy different motives. Journal of personality and social psychology105(3), 458.

Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 653–665.

Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290–309.