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The Science of Live Theatre

A new study shows the benefits of attending live theatre.

Key points

  • A new study finds that live theatre improves empathy and changes attitudes.
  • The more immersed theatre-goers are in a play's storyline, the stronger the effects are.
  • Live theatre has the potential to shape important behaviors such as political opinions and charitable donations.
Pixabay/12019
Source: Pixabay/12019

Theatre has been part of our lives throughout history, yet until recently, there has been little psychological study of its effects. Does seeing live theatre change us? Does it have benefits beyond pure entertainment?

This question has become especially important in the context of COVID-19. Theatres around the world have been shut down for over a year due to COVID-19, arts organizations are struggling, and many theatre artists are unemployed at the moment. Theatre companies will require funding to survive past the pandemic, but it can be difficult to justify arts funding without data about its potential benefits.

Our study on the effects of live theatre

I recently published a study with Jamil Zaki and Leor Hackel in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that tested the effects of attending live theatre. We randomly assigned 1,622 theatre-goers to fill out surveys either before or after attending three different plays.

Two of these plays were “ Skeleton Crew ” and “ Wolf Play ” produced by Artists Repertory Theatre. A third play was a tour of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play “ Sweat ” throughout various states in the Midwest, described as an attempt to have theatre reach out to communities that do not normally attend theatre.

We found that attending these plays increased empathy for people depicted in them and changed people’s political attitudes about a variety of issues related to the show, such as income inequality.

Additionally, seeing theatre changed behavior. After attending these plays, people donated more to charity — whether or not these charities were related to the show.

All of these effects were associated with how “transported” people felt by the plays. In other words, the more immersed people were in the stories, the stronger the effects were.

These studies suggest that live theatre is more than pure entertainment. Theatre can change people’s political opinions and lead to important behaviors, like increased charitable donations.

More broadly, these studies also point to the power of the arts and storytelling — theatre or otherwise — to change minds. Stories are a non-threatening way for us to explore different perspectives we might not encounter in our lives or see positive representations of outgroup members.

The arts matter, yet arts education is often the first thing to be cut in school budget cuts, and the importance of arts funding is frequently debated. These studies show the tangible benefits of attending live theatre. Further collaborations like these between artists and scientists are needed to help us understand the role of the arts in our society.

References

Rathje, S., Hackel, L., & Zaki, J. (2021). Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 95, 104138.

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