Drs. Dumas and Organisciak identify key psychological characteristics setting apart actors from non-actors

What in the mind of a professional stage or screen actor sets them apart from a typical, non-acting person? A new study published by professors Dr. Denis Dumas and Dr. Peter Organisciak in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver — in collaboration with Michael Doherty, a professional actor affiliated with Actor’s Equity Association — set out to answer that question.

In this study, more than 20 psychological tests focused on creative thinking, personality, and motivations were administered to three different groups of participants: professional actors, undergraduate student acting majors, and adults who were not actors. The participants’ responses to these measures were entered into a machine learning model, the goal of which was to identify the actors just on their psychological characteristics. As it turned out, the model was able to identify actors with a 92% accuracy solely on their psychological data, a stronger finding than the researchers ever expected.

Key psychological characteristics identified the actors from the non-actors in this study. In particular, both professional and student actors were identified based on their higher levels of openness to new experiences, extraverted assertiveness, and their elaborative capacity to expand on a creative idea. At a finer grain level, the professional actors were further distinguished from the undergraduate students based on their higher levels of original thinking, neurotic volatility, and their more regular engagement in literary activities such as writing and reading scripts.

“In the future, the findings from this study may be useful for individuals who are considering a career in acting to determine whether or not their psychological characteristics match with the demands of the profession,” Dumas says. “Within university education, this study may help acting coaches and directors to tailor their instruction and feedback to the specific attributes their students may yet need to develop.”

This study also shows how much can be accomplished when research is produced through interdisciplinary collaborations where a member of the community being studied (a professional actor in this case) is deeply involved in the research.

Pictured above: A scene from “Something Wicked: Shakespeare’s Macbeth” a production of DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts, which ran from Oct. 31 through Nov. 10 last year.

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