People choose professions for many reasons, not the least of which is their ability, and some of which is the luck of being at the right place at the right time. Psychologists who study vocational development believe that your choice of a career reflects your personality. According to the late vocational theorist John Holland, your career reflects some combination of highs and lows on six basic personality types(link is external). If your personality type matches the traits dominant in your chosen career, you will be in a state known as “congruence.” If not, the incongruity you experience will lead you on a quest for the ideal job environment. The six types in the theory are abbreviated as RIASEC, meaning Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. People high in Realistic, for example, like to work with their hands, and the Artistic enjoy creative expression.
With this as a background, University College of London psychologists Mark Davison and Adrian Furnham (2018) decided to dig into a question that you’ve probably had many times, especially if you follow celebrity news sites. Are all actors narcissists? Do they choose their career not only because they are high on the Artistic dimension of RIASEC, but because they love basking in the limelight? What does it take to take your vocational profile as artistic into a professional career that will actually allow you to earn a living?
Davison and Furnham’s study focused on the science behind the personalities of actors, noting at the outset that “The theater has unique and unusual requirements” (p. 33). Specifically, careers in the professional acting world rarely provide any kind of normal job security, and there are always far more people seeking parts than there are roles. The harrowing aspects of its demands further complicate the life of a professional actor. Stage actors must perform consistently in front of large audiences, and film actors must be able to withstand the high pressure of the sound studio, often with long hours that can be physically demanding if not exhausting. They may have to spend hours in costume and makeup, and perform the most intimate love scenes in front of dozens of crew. Finally, the evaluative criteria used to judge the actor’s work are highly subjective. Being nominated for a major acting award only recognizes the work of very few. Most actors rely on ratings of their work by drama critics, and unlike performance reviews by one’s boss, you cannot predict the outcome. A negative review can kill an actor’s career, furthermore, so these high-stakes evaluations are even more anxiety provoking.
Still think that actors are looking merely to boost their egos when they enter this career path? It would seem like, to the contrary, they pursue their passion despite the odds. Those who make it are never really home free, because their next movie or TV show might be their last if those reviews fail to provide critical acclaim.
With this background in mind, Davison and Furnham laid out the psychological qualities involved in the job of acting. First, there’s the matter of being able to memorize their scripts, and if they are in a repertory group, they’ll be working off more than one script at a time. Next, and even more challenging, is that they need to be able to portray the full range of human emotions. This means they have to be able to feel the feelings of their characters and then communicate these to the audience, sometimes in very subtle ways. When they step into the character, though, they also have to be able to step out of it.