‘Shall I compare thee..?’ (Personality Traits & Acting).

In a change of pace, here’s a blog entry I submitted to another site which may be of interest if you’re theatrically-inclined.

Are you an actor? If so, are you a ‘typical’ actor?

Now I don’t mean in the existential ‘how much acting must an actor do to call oneself an actor’ type of way (thoroughly explored by individual who are actually actors!). I am talking about how much your personality coincides with the ‘typical actor’ (if such an archetype exists). How much your characteristics are aligned with the traits commonly associated with your profession. Whilst on some downtime from my current psychology research, I decided to…err…research psychology (personal note: must get out more!), specifically, psychological studies on the profession of acting.

Here is a selection that may be of interest*:

Actor = open, agreeable, and empathetic (if neurotic!)

A 191 sample of UK actors were compared with the general population on the following: OCEAN personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism), and systemising (perceiving patterns in changing information) and empathising (levels of empathy) quotients. The actors scored higher in all areas (except for systemising and conscientiousness). I’m sure these findings are not overly revelatory to you; ‘Actors have higher levels of neuroticism than rescue mountaineers!’ is not front-page headline material (though it was one of the actual comparison groups!). However, it does indicate that certain traits may be beneficial for the job in hand (i.e.: openness to new experiences, general agreeableness, and a superior ability to empathise).

Experienced actor = Better social skills

A comparative study (self-report questionnaires and observations) of professional actors, drama school students and non-actors found the professionals to have the most effective social skills. These higher ratings were not mediated by age, sex or higher self-esteem scores; however, a strong correlation was found between the number of productions in which the actor had been involved and increased social skills. This finding doesn’t necessarily point to a causation between better social skills and increased employment per se, but, might be worth considering at the next audition!

Actors and Elephants = Bountiful memory!!

The process actors use to memorise lines (combining word recall with movement) has been used successfully to improve the memories of the elderly. Another study on the movement-word association found process to be a positive means of improving recall accuracy for performers. Yes, if you have found in rehearsals that ‘getting it on its feet’ improved/quickened the process of line learning – you’d be right!

Different gender = Different emoting skills

During a study exploring if actors could convey emotional meaning recognisably without story or context to guide the audience, certain gender differences emerged: (1) Female actors where superior at portraying fear and sadness, (2) Male actors were superior at portraying anger, (3) Female actors are better at communicating general emotion minus audience context (though this wasn’t statistically significant). I think I will leave this to actual thespians to unpick!

Brief Overview

So, what, if anything, has this brief canter around the (selected) psychology literature on actors offered us? Well, firstly, I don’t think one can attribute a certain set of characteristics to the profession. It would be simplistic to ascertain that ‘all actors are… (insert trait here), rather, this research shows that one is more likely to meet a certain ‘type of person’ within the industry. However, I do think that the literature does correspond with both my personal experiences and observations of the industry from my own acting days. It is also worth noting that all of the above studies are in a Western context and should only be considered within that paradigm (maybe a study of Kabuki performers would produce a whole host of differing traits?). Another consideration is one of cause and effect regarding the personality traits that were prevalent among actors. For example, are open and agreeable people attracted to the profession or does the profession influence and mould individuals to act in that manner?

Maybe both things are occurring simultaneously; a self-perpetuating cycle in which openness and agreeableness get rewarded and, thus, attract those with such a disposition to the business. What is the role of professional stereotypes in all of this – what personality traits would you evoke if someone asked you to imagine the ‘ideal’ actor? What qualities must such a person possess? In my opinion, being good at acting and being good as a professional actor (the business part) require, in some ways, contrasting skill sets (flexible to change and empathic but rigidly structured and resilient to the opinion of others). How does that fit into the equation when determining the ideal attributes for an actor? Indeed, is such a question even relevant?

As you will have gathered by now, though I’m sure you already knew, no easy answers present themselves. On the plus side, if you’re an actor, psychology research tells me you’re probably a bloody delight to be around (most of the time!).

*Note: I haven’t included references to avoid an overly ‘academic’ blog, but happy to provide them if requested.

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