The Effects of Acting Training on Theory of Mind, Empathy, and Emotion Regulation
Despite the widespread involvement of individuals in drama either as performers or audience members, psychologists know very little about the cognitive and affective underpinnings of acting. Acting may provide a powerful lens through which to understand how we understand our own and others' minds. In this dissertation, I review research on theory of mind, empathy, and emotion regulation, show how these three skills are related to acting theory and acting training, and discuss studies I have previously completed demonstrating correlations between skill in acting and skill in theory of mind, empathy, and positive emotion regulation. I then completed four studies. Study 1 was a longitudinal study comparing children (ages 8-10) receiving acting vs. visual arts training over the course of one academic year testing the hypothesis that acting training in childhood is causally related to development of advanced theory of mind, positive emotion regulation, and empathy. Study 1 found that children in acting classes gain in empathy and expression of emotion over a year above children involved in other art forms. Study 2 was a qualitative study designed to determine the kinds of habits of mind taught, explicitly and implicitly, in acting classes for children (ages 8-10). The purpose of Study 2 was to determine the extent to which acting teachers strive to teach theory of mind, empathy, and adaptive emotion regulation in their acting classes. Study 2 found that children in acting classes at this age are taught about physicality and motivation, with no emphasis on empathy or emotion regulation and only a slight emphasis on theory of mind. Study 3 was parallel to Study 1, but with young adolescents, aged 13-15. Study 3 found that adolescents involved in acting classes gain in their empathy, theory of mind acuity, and expressive emotion regulation over the course of a year over and above adolescents involved in other art forms. Study 4 was parallel to Study 2, with acting classes for adolescents. Study 4 found that adolescent acting classes focus on theory of mind and motivation, without any emphasis on empathy or emotion regulation. I conclude by considering the potential impact of this research on our understanding of typical development in theory of mind, empathy, emotion regulation, and on our understanding of individuals deficient in these skills.