The Psychology of Playing the Part

What makes an actor?


Forty percent of Americans fear public speaking, yet 135,000 professional actors and uncountable numbers of amateurs in this country seek the limelight. Isn’t acting just public speaking while pretending to be Benjamin Franklin or a scarecrow? Who are these people?

Perhaps it will not shock you to learn that, on average, actors have a higher Empathy Quotient (think IQ, but for social sensitivity) than the rest of the population. In addition to empathy, psychologist Daniel Nettle finds that actors are more extroverted and open to new experiences than are control groups made up of non-actors.

Actors differ from their “don’t drag me onstage” counterparts before they ever enter the profession. A recent study conducted by psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner, in which both actors and lawyers answered questions about their childhoods, suggests that actors are particularly drawn to alternative worlds from a young age. But some differences almost certainly arise from onstage experience. Goldstein and Winner report that providing non-actors with acting training improves empathy, while researchers Noice and Noice (featured last week for their work on how actors learn lines) find improvements in cognitive skills such as memory and problem-solving.

None of this research, however, really addresses acting: how it is done, and what the dramatic arts can tell us about more ordinary performances.

Even non-actors make decisions about how (and how transparently) to behave with a specific audience in mind. We are aware of this audience on some level when we remind ourselves not to drink too much champagne at the holiday party, laugh at a joke we don’t find funny, or put on make-up or a Manchester United jersey or button our top button. Without an audience, we wouldn’t be embarrassed to order dinner at our favorite ethnic restaurant, confronted with the possibility of mispronouncing bánh xèo or baigan bhartha. We certainly wouldn’t ask our coworker about her cat. Sometimes we have power over our audience, sometimes it has power over us, and quite often we’re just angling to coexist, but our attempt is nearly always to present the world with the best self we can for every given situation.

Sociolinguistic studies on these everyday performances have identified subtle differences in how we speak, depending on who we’re talking to and about what topic. Psycholinguists have noted how well or badly we tailor our conversations to our partner’s point of view. Business scholars have determined that employees, particularly those in service occupations, suffer emotional exhaustion after days upon days of feigning good cheer.

But actors! Actors control speech patterns, track audience expectations, and feign (or conjure) emotions, all from someone else’s perspective, using someone else’s history, and for the 50th time as if it were the first. How an actor transports herself into a scene would make an intriguing area of study. Awareness of the self or the immediate environment—the stage lights, the freezing room, even an actor’s own name—may differ among individuals or change within an individual over the course of a performance in predictable, interesting ways.

Another possible area of study: my sister-in-law explains, “When I’m acting, there are things that I can do for my character that I can’t do in my real life. I can keep a straight face in a comedy, but in real life I can’t keep a straight face when telling a joke.” To what extent is this true for everyday performances? Do some roles give us the ability to achieve what others do not?

But the real boon here is that actors project identities that are distilled and unabashed, and the knowledge they tap into when creating these identities is knowledge we must all have in some form or another or these identities wouldn’t be so recognizable. This is grieving, this is stand-offish, this is female, this is elderly, this is nervous but somehow still in-charge. And so it is, but why? This is where the fun begins.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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