Do Your Favorite Actors Share a Personality Disorder?
Examining narcissism, psychopathy, borderline, and more in the acting profession
Posted Jan 20, 2018
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. 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, or Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. People high in Realistic, for example, like to work with their hands, while 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 you’ve probably considered 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." Specifically, careers in the professional acting world rarely provide any kind of normal job security; 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 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 intimate romantic scenes in front of dozens of crew members. Finally, the evaluative criteria used to judge the actor’s work are highly subjective. Nominations for major awards only recognize the work of very few. Most actors rely on evaluations of their work by drama critics, and unlike most performance reviews by one’s boss, you cannot predict the outcome. A negative review can also kill an actor’s career, so these high-stakes evaluations are even more anxiety provoking.
Still think that actors are merely looking to boost their egos when they enter this path? It would seem, to the contrary, that they pursue their passion despite the odds. Those who make it are never really home free because their next movie or TV series might be their last if those reviews fail to provide critical acclaim.
With this 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 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, 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 communicate these to the audience, sometimes in very subtle ways. Along with stepping into the character, they also have to be able to step out of it.
Proponents of “method acting,” the authors point out, can experience possession syndrome, in which their lives outside the theater become “infected” by their roles: “Actors can experience a blurring of the lines between their own personality and their character’s in the sense that much of a character’s personality may be borrowed from the actor's." After work, the real person has to shake off this persona. Imagine you’re playing a queen or a king in a historical drama. Everyone bows and scrapes to you, and you are required to behave in a regal if not huffy manner. The show is over, and now you exit onto the street, where you’re just a regular person trying to get home. No one is going to bow and scrape to you now, unless you’re so famous that you’re easily recognized. If you are, you probably won’t allow yourself to mingle with the public, but you still have family members and friends to contend with, and have to return to a semblance of your actual self.
This fascinating analysis presented by the UCL psychologists led to their study of the actual personality traits of professional actors. Rather than rely on armchair diagnosis, the authors administered a personality disorder inventory to 214 individuals, 163 of whom had trained at a drama school. Additionally, the actors rated their perceived acting ability, including level of improvisation and ability to laugh or cry on cue, as well as their preferred medium (film/TV or stage; comedy vs. drama), role (hero or villain), and desire for fame. Their demographic data provided another index useful in the study allowing the researchers to determine more objectively their success in terms of pay level and length of employment as an actor.
Taking a look now at the results, perhaps not surprisingly, actors scored higher on the so-called “Cluster B” personality disorder traits of Narcissistic, Histrionic, and Borderline. However, their scores were also higher on the Antisocial and Schizotypal (eccentricity) scales and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (concern for order and perfection). Men were higher on scales measuring Dependent Personality and Avoidant Personality Disorder. Unlike studies measuring personality disorder traits in other populations, there were no significant correlations with actual (albeit self-rated) abilities.
Interpreting these findings, the authors note that the expected high narcissism scores of actors supports the idea that it takes a somewhat inflated sense of self to be able to put on a good impression (such as when auditioning for a role) and to cope with the constant rejection actors face when they don’t land a part. The high Borderline scores may reflect the desirability in acting of being able to “access the extremes of emotion” which, in turn, allows actors to be able to cry on cue more effectively. Furthermore, the identity instability of people high on borderline traits may also fit with the actor’s need to resolve identity concerns by taking on the qualities of other people. High scores on the Histrionic scale may, similarly, be expected given the “penchant for the dramatic” among those pursuing acting careers. The unexpected high Antisocial scores, in retrospect, may make sense given that actors have to be able to show their entrepreneurial side as well as being willing to take risks. This may be helpful, as the authors point out, at least in the short run.
Now on to those other somewhat unexpected findings: The high obsessive-compulsive scores may, as the authors suggest, relate to the diligence and need for precision of those in the acting community. This may relate both to the requirements of discipline for the constant memorization of scripts as well as the demands of directors and producers that actors perform at a consistently high level of perfection. You don’t want your actors standing in the wrong place on the stage, or dropping in late when the shooting schedule is tightly determined by budgets. For men, being somewhat dependent and avoidant could reflect, as the authors suggest, greater openness and self-honesty related to their ability to admit to their limitations.
As a whole, Davison and Furnham believe they have demonstrated the higher “dark-side” profile of people attracted to jobs with a high level of that RIASEC quality of enterprising. Their job requires that they build their skills to benefit themselves, not their employers. However, this is true only up to a point. If actors are too manipulative and entrepreneurial, they are doomed to fail in the profession: They may be drawn to acting “because of their PD profile yet ultimately fail because of it." Similarly, actors high in histrionic traits received lower pay, as reported in the study, than those with more restrained personalities. This suggests that you can only be attention-seeking up to a point, after which you’re not that desirable to have as part of the team needed to produce a high-quality performance.
To sum up, this thoughtful and extensive analysis of the personalities of real actors (not just those you read about in the tabloids) can give you insight into what makes your favorite performers so appealing. Beyond being able to survive the perils of the profession, these individuals are willing to put themselves out there for your entertainment. They may not be perfect people, but their personalities suggest they are trying their best at doing what they love the most.
Davison, M., & Furnham, A. (2018). The personality disorder profile of professional actors. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 7(1), 33-46. doi:10.1037/ppm0000101