Posts Tagged ‘acting’

PeopleTriggers Wants to Hear from You!

September 28, 2014 3 comments

Just a short solicitation this month.

Most of the past articles on PeopleTriggers came from whatever fascinating quirk of human nature had my attention in that moment. Many are inspired by books or articles that I was reading at the time. Now, I’d like to put more thought into the topics, lists or how-tos that might be most helpful or valuable to you. I don’t yet do the greatest job of actually asking people what they would like to read, or framing that knowledge in the form of solving a specific problem. I want to get better at that.

As a first step, I’d like to take a few requests.

Are you fascinated by any one particular aspect of psychology, like developmental or educational? Do you want to see articles that are simple explorations (like most that I do now), or do you like the Top 10’s and the 5 Things You Can Do Right Now?

You’ve paid me a lot of kindness, viewing and following this blog. I’d like to see how I can make this experience even more valuable for you. If you’ve been curious about any element of psychology, sociology, motivation, performance or acting, please let me know your thoughts.

Let’s light up the comments field below! Looking forward to hearing from you!


Think Acting Is About Emotional Empathy? Science Says No.

July 29, 2013 7 comments
Cover of

Cover via Amazon

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 Sine Qua Non of Theatre, and the Two Hours I Want Back

March 26, 2012 2 comments

During the last half hour of The Goodman’s Camino Real, while I was trying to paper-cut my wrists open with the edges of my program, I was asking myself, “How much of what we consider theatre can you strip away before you can no longer call it theatre?”

Camino Real is the Goodman’s current ultra avante garde adaptation of a surrealist Tennessee Williams play. The entire experience of the show can be encapsulated in one telling moment: at the end of the play, the company of actors took their curtain call to only tepid and polite applause. The cast, showing no sensory acuity whatsoever, decided to take an unsolicited encore bow…probably out of sheer habit, but in that moment it seemed obliviously pretentious.

My wife and I are frequent theatre goers and we both have a good deal of patience for avante garde theatre, provided it ends up having some value or merit. After the hour and forty five minute time limit before the Goodman decided to be merciful and let its audience exit from Camino Real, the only point of debate between us was whether the show literally had no redeeming value, or whether we were not the intended target audience. I typically steel myself from declaring that a show is outright bad because I admit the possibility that I did not understand the point. When I was in college, I saw Ionesco’s The Chairs in New York, and I left the play baffled. It wasn’t until later when I learned more about the context of existentialism and also grew up a little bit that I finally understood the point. The Chairs is an example of a play that would baffle contemporary audiences only to be better appreciated in time, which is a quality that often suggests artistic merit.

We know from the history of theatre that you can strip away many of the elements that are characteristically associated with the genre and still produce high-quality art. We know for example that you do not absolutely need realistic or even eye-catching sets and technical aspects. The best production of Romeo and Juliet I ever saw consisted of five RADA actors and five chairs. Read more…

How Pressure and Stress Are Affecting Your Performance

April 19, 2011 130 comments
The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

Some years ago, a Princeton psychologist named Sam Glucksberg brought a group of test subjects into a room. In the room was a table positioned against a wall. On the table was a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. “Your job,” Glucksberg told his subjects, “is to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when it’s lit, the wax will not drip onto the table. I will be timing you, and I will use your results to establish averages and benchmarks.”

Some time later, he brought another group of subjects into the room. He showed them an identical set-up: table, matches, box of thumbtacks, and candle. He gave them the identical instructions, but added a twist: “I will be timing you, and you will be rewarded with money based on your times. If you finish in the top 25% of all times, you will receive X dollars. If you’re the fastest of all times, we will give you double that amount.”

All of Glucksberg’s groups were timed against one another. And what do you think happened as a result?

The groups who received the money as a reward were, on average, three-and-a-half minutes slower at coming up with the right answer. How could this happen? Read more…

What It Actually Means to be “In Your Head”

December 29, 2010 9 comments

What follows is one of the most important and fascinating lessons I’ve ever learned about performance. Any kind of performance.

Cover of

Cover of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

In his compilation book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell re-publishes his New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure. Here’s what he says about the process that we call “choking”:

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.”

But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.

The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.

Way back when, I took scene study classes in college. Beginning actors come in to programs rife with bad habits and shitck that had served them in the past. Early scene study classes have two general purposes: 1) break actors of bad technical habits, and 2) get them thinking more thoroughly about what’s going on in a scene. During such classes, the acting quality starts to improve, but the actors become less free and expressive. You can see actors start to struggle and second-guess themselves, trying to do the scene “right.” Teachers would say about such students are “in their heads,” and needed to “get out of their heads,” but without further explanation or direction the students seldom knew what that meant.

Implicit Learning

Implicit Learning – Letting the subconscious get a “feel” through repetition

Lo and behold, being “in your head” and “out of your head” has a distinct physiological meaning, as we see from Gladwell’s work. When you learn an element of performance, whether it’s a sport, an instrument, a test, taking the stage, or anything else that creates an “event,” you use one part of your brain to train another part. The conscious, explicit-learning part of the brain can think through what it’s supposed to do step-by-step, but it cannot produce a quality performance. So we condition ourselves by practicing technique explicitly and technically, over and over, until our unconscious, implicit-learning brain “gets it.” For more information on instructing using implicit versus explicit activity, read this article.

This is not headline-grabbing science. But within this explanation lies a new idea: even superbly conditioned performers and athletes can fall victim to a take-over by their explicit-brains, and become beginners again. This is paradoxical: we typically tell those who have trouble performing to buckle down and try harder. But in this case, the performance trouble is actually caused by too much buckling down. Read more…

Shakespeare, Without Wailing or Gesticulating

October 13, 2010 49 comments

Romeo and Juliet, at the Chicago Shakespeare TheatreLast week, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s newest staging of Romeo and Juliet. It reminded me that It’s been about ten years or so since I saw a staging of R&J featuring actual chemistry between the two leads. I’m still on the lookout for it.

Shakespeare, like any long-lived, evolving phenomenon, is subject to trends. They keep things interesting. For example, as the director cited in the program, Romeo and Juliet was used as a female star vehicle throughout the late 20th century. As a result, the role of Juliet would be played by actresses inappropriately old for the role.

The director also notes that in the last 20 years or so, Shakespeare stagings have re-emphasized the bawdy humor. The plays have always contained sex jokes, included originally to appeal to the cheap-ticket audience. Until recently this humor was downplayed or cut out entirely. Now it’s played up so much that I must have counted five or six pantomimed pelvic thrusts at this most recent performance.

Trends are good. It’s important to look at classics in new, interesting ways. This most recent staging, interesting though it was, signaled to me that it’s time for the trend to shift again. Read more…

The Biggest Pitfall in Work Presentations, and How To Avoid It

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a little while since I last posted an entry. I’m coming to the end of a double-loaded term in MBA school, and that’s where most of my time has been going recently. Also, I think I’ve been putting too much effort into writing seminal entries: 1,200- to 1,500-word articles that are establishing broad principles. So I’m going to shorten up the posts for a little while, and kick out some more practical, useful content.

Here’s one very practical piece of information, based on a discussion from one of my classes on making presentations in the workplace:


Presentations: Why Should They Care?


The discussion started with the obligatory question. “Why do we make presentations?” It then posed a few potential answers:

  • To persuade
  • To generate buy-in
  • To inform
  • To announce
  • To motivate
  • Etc.

Most of those words would make for pretty good presentations. They imply action and intent. I want to focus on the one that doesn’t: “to inform.”

In freshman scene study class at Wesleyan, most of the beginning acting work came out wretchedly. That was because we neophyte actors had very little understanding of what was actually going on between the people in the scene. Dr. Ficca would ask an actor, “What are you doing up there?”, and the actor would respond, “Well, I’m telling this person so-and-so. I’m informing them. I’m giving exposition.” Then, Dr. Ficca would (lovingly) tell the actor that no one on stage ever, ever simply informs, and that the actor was doing a depressingly bad job with the scene because he wasn’t actually doing anything. Read more…