David Gergen was a staffer to four presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. In his book Eyewitness to Power, he said of Reagan that his previous acting experience gave him a coveted public speaking skill: controlled access to one’s own emotions.

Acting is understood, particularly by outsiders, as an emotional exercise. Presumably, you build a character by feeling the same emotions that a fictitious person would have felt under certain circumstances. It follows that acting requires a talent for empathy, the ability to feel another’s emotions. Those who are most predisposed to empathize with others could therefore summon the proper emotions when required, and portray characters most believably.

It turns out, no.

Thalia Goldstein is a social science researcher from Pace University who studies the relationship between acting and psychology. Her research has been used in the development of acting and role-playing therapies for emotional suppression. She recently published a fascinating article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality called “Actors are Skilled in Theory of Mind But Not Empathy“. This article gives us important insight into what actors actually do when they practice their craft.

Goldstein discusses a psychological concept called “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind is the understanding that “two people can hold different but equally valid interpretations of the same object or image,” and the term describes one person’s ability to understand someone else’s interpretation – their take – on the situation.

Theory of mind (the ability to understand another’s mental state and motivations) is very different from empathy (the ability to put oneself in someone else’s emotional place). How do we know this? We observe psychopaths and bullies. Psychopaths and bullies are extraordinarily socially attuned, and manipulate people based on this acuity, but have little or no empathy. This distinction is important.

Pace University

Pace University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Goldstein administered batteries of Theory of Mind and empathy tests to groups of actors and non-actors. Actors are ideal candidates for the study of these attributes because “Actors think deeply about the motivations, beliefs, and value systems of the characters they enact, and then must make these internal states come alive…” She hypothesized that training in acting was associated with both heightened social sensitivity and heightened empathy.

Goldstein conducted two separate studies to this effect and found similar results: acting training was significantly associated with heightened Theory of Mind (social perception) skills, but not heightened empathy skills. Her study could not give us an idea of causation for this effect: we do not know yet whether the practice of acting heightens social awareness, or whether the persuit of acting attracts those who are already highly socially aware.

One retrospective study supported this distinction:

…actors reported a separation between feeling empathy for someone and analyzing their mental state at the same time. One actor reported “I’m having a discussion with someone and they’re really having an emotional kind of experience and I’m listening and I’m being empathetic, but at the back of my mind I’m like, my God, that’s so interesting.”

We can, however, begin to better understand the practice of acting: not as a touchy-feely show of emotion on queue, but as an exercise of reading other people and cultivating authentic reaction. The lack of association between acting and empathy may cause us to rethink the techniques that we teach, as it may turn out that empathy-intensive techniques like Method Acting are less useful than previously assumed.

We need further study in this area to flush out more details, such as:

1. Whether heightened social perception is a cause of, or effect of, pursuits in acting

2. If the latter, whether the lack of heightened empathy is explained by the acting techniques commonly taught (method vs. non-method styles)

3. Whether either heightened social perception or heightened empathy corresponds with more believable portrayals

Institutions like high schools and magnet schools who teach young actors could easily set up experiments to this effect. I’m sure Dr. Goldstein would welcome contact from institutions in the New York area, and might have a chance to contribute to the science more directly. Understanding exactly what actors do when they practice their craft would not only help us improve the art (say, by developing more effective teaching methods and exercises), but would also help us better understand the psychology of putting oneself inside another’s head.

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