Archive for July, 2013

Think Acting Is About Emotional Empathy? Science Says No.

July 29, 2013 7 comments
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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.


The Cutting Edge: 5 New Psychological Discoveries

Hot off the presses this week:

Monastery on the campus of Villanova University.

Monastery on the campus of Villanova University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1) Jealousy Makes Us View Ourselves as More Like Our Rivals

Three new studies by Erica Slotter of Villanova University (and her colleagues) came out today in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We already know that the way we view ourselves often changes depending on circumstance. We know that people will change how they view themselves in order to rationalize incongruent behaviors. Sometimes we use distorted self-beliefs as defense mechanisms, etc. So it should come as no surprise that, when we feel jealous about a personal rival, we alter how we view ourselves. But what is fascinating is that we alter ourselves to seem more like our rival, rather than setting ourselves apart from them.

2) Sad Music Could Actually Evoke Positive Emotions

If sad music evokes sadness, then why do we listen to it? Sadness is, after all, unpleasant. A Japanese study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that sad music actually evokes a complex set of emotions – not just sadness but romanticism and blitheness of spirit – and this complex ambivalence makes the experience pleasant. The study also suggests that experiencing sadness through art may feel pleasant because there is no real life threat to our health and safety.

3) The Top Predictor of Divorce: Early Arguments About Money

In a new study from Sonya Britt of Kansas State University, money arguments are found to be top predictor of divorce: “It’s not children, sex, in-laws or anything else. It’s money — for both men and women.” The study, published today in Family Relations, controls for factors like income, debt and net worth – and concludes that money arguments are the best divorce predictors for people from all financial circumstances.

4) Scientists Create a Daydreaming Computer

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in orange, including the primary visual cortex (V1, BA17). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1990’s just as fMRI-based neurology studies were becoming popular, scientists noticed that certain brain centers remain very active even if the mind is idle. Now, an international team of neuroscientists have created a computer model of the brain based on the dynamics and interconnections of brain cells that actually simulates the brain at rest. It can actually “daydream” like a human. This technology can help us understand the brain’s resting-state networks, which are actually very busy and complex.

5) Mass-shooter Psychology and Law Enforcement Strategy

Researcher Adam Lankford’s new study on mass shooters, published today in Justice Quarterly, is “…the first largescale academic analysis of “active shooters,” defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as: ‘an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area'” ( The study shows that there are numerous psychological differences between shooters who commit suicide or suicide-by-cop, and those who survive the crime. The study suggests that training officers to distinguish those perpetrators who are likely suicidal from those who are not may influence the outcome of the shooting.

Quora Questions: Overcoming Procrastination

July 9, 2013 1 comment
English: Basal Ganglia and Related Structures ...

English: Basal Ganglia and Related Structures of the Brain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While trolling through Quora, I came across a question that I have asked myself over and over: “How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?”

The first answer to this question caught my eye. It was written by Oliver Emberton, who keeps a blog called Leading a Better Life. He gives us a readable and entertaining explanation of how different parts of the brain interact to either create or overcome procrastination.

Emberton creates two characters: Albert, a rational character representing the activity of the pre-frontal cortex, and Rex, a baby reptile who represents the musing of the more reptilian parts of our brain (the basal ganglia, located at the stem). While Albert is the only one capable of complex, rational thought, it is Rex who is, interestingly enough, in charge of the final decisions on everything we do. So while our decisions may be influenced by rational thought, we are not rational creatures; ultimately we make decisions based on associations and habits etched within the lower levels of our brain.

The story of these two characters draws from the intellectual playground of authors like Charles Duhigg (“The Power of Habit”), and academics such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking, Fast and Slow“), and Roy Baumeister who study willpower, decision mechanisms, and the evolution of the human brain.

I encourage you to read his answer for yourself, but I will say that Emberton keys in on an insightful metaphor: the basal ganglia (the baby reptile Rex) acts much like a small child would. I’m about to welcome my first child into the world, so his take seems interesting to me.

The Basal Ganglia, he argues, does not speak the language of rationality, it speaks the language of primal emotion: “Hunger. Fear. Love. Lust. Rex’s thoughts are primitive and without language.” So, this part of the brain – the part that ultimately drives action – cannot be reasoned with. It must be spoken to on an emotional rather than a logical level. Like a child, it must be bribed and cajoled. Habits must be set up with reward and punishment mechanisms.Discipline must be cultivated.

With all the advanced psychological and neuroscience research available today, it’s funny to me that the most intuitive way of dealing with the decision-oriented aspects of the brain is to regard them as you would a child. But the comparison seems to hold up.

Just How Squishy is Social Science?

July 6, 2013 1 comment

I find psychology and sociology generally fascinating, and part of that fascination extends to just how full of holes these fields are. I believe that one of the largest parts about understanding any area of knowledge is to understand the limits of that area. Just because a particular field may or may not be scientific does not mean it isn’t valuable. But it may mean we have to be careful how we regard and interpret findings within these fields.

Is psychology a science? Is sociology? For that matter, is economics? In universities, graduates in these fields are typically awarded science bachelors. When people talk about their relative veracity, however, or they’re repeatability, they’re generally referred to as the “squishy” sciences. That’s when they’re referred to as sciences at all.


Dr. Lee Jussim is the Psychology department chair at Rutgers. He’s a field expert in the accuracy of social perceptions. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today. His blog is called the Rabble Rouser – a name that suggests a welcome spring of iconoclasm and skepticism.

Yesterday he published A Scientific Critique of (Mostly) Psychological Science). It’s a survey of seven articles (one of them his own) that call for increased skepticism of science research results, but especially the social sciences. Jussim’s self-cited article Nonscientific Influences on Social Psychology lists some of the malevolent influences that tend to cloud scientific publication:

Fads, politics, self-interest, self-serving self-promotion, story-telling, and certain dysfunctions in our norms for everything from methods to statistics to publication processes to middle school-style popularity contests all undermine the quality, validity, generalizability, and replicability of some areas of social psychological research and conclusions.

Read more…