Why it is difficult to separate the Actor from the Character


Rachel Shelley as Helena Peabody in season 2 of Showtime’s The L Word and in a tour of her trailer.

Rachel Shelley asking Meredith McGeachie at the Starfury: L1 convention (in the cutest way ever) what it could possibly be like to play “a character who’s just…not that popular” got me thinking: Why is it so hard for us to separate the actor from a character they play?

How come they even needed to have this (albeit playful) conversation about people attributing characteristics of roles they portrayed in a television show to them as a person? Why was Mia Kirshner hated by many because of Jenny Schechter’s behavior in The L Word? Why do people get type-cast?*

Could good old (Freudian) transference be to blame? Could this have something to do with the Halo Effect, the “tendency for people to think that a person’s positive or negative traits ‘spill over’ from one area of life to another“? But why would that happen when we clearly are aware that we are dealing with a living being on the one hand and a scripted character on the other? Shouldn’t we be able to tell the difference and control this bias?

A theory that (controversially discussed) evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa elaborates on in his thought-provoking blog The Scientific Fundamentalist at the Psychology Today website might shed some light on this:  

Pioneers of evolutionary psychology all recognized that the psychological adaptations are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment, not necessarily to the conditions of the current environment. I call these observations the Savanna Principle: The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. […]

One example of the Savanna Principle in action is the fact that individuals who watch certain types of TV shows are more satisfied with their friendships, just as they are if they had more friends or socialized with them more frequently. […] From the perspective of the Savanna Principle, this is probably because realistic images of other humans, such as television, movies, videos, DVDs, and photographs, did not exist in the ancestral environment, where all realistic images of other humans were other humans. As a result, the Savanna Principle suggests that the human brain may have implicit difficulty distinguishing their “TV friends” – the characters they repeatedly see on TV shows – and their real friends.

Applying this theory to the “Actor Equals Character Effect” described above works very well: Our brain has a hard time distinguishing between the actor and the character they play because “characters on TV etc.” have obviously not existed for very long, so we interpret the characteristics the actors portray on screen as belonging to the actors themselves (and then possibly generalize those characteristics courtesy of the Halo effect).

This sounds kinda upsetting, but I’m happy to report that Kanazawa also stresses:

The key word in the Savanna Principle […] is difficulty, not impossibility. It is sometimes possible to overcome the limitations of the human brain consciously – it is possible for us to remember that the characters we see on TV are professional actors who are paid millions of dollars to play scripted roles – but it is often difficult.


1. Update: Some meta-ness: I came across a comment from Matt LeBlanc that fits the theme of this post quite well:

“People’s guards come down when they think you’re dumb,” Matt LeBlanc told our reporter […] at a special Showtime pre-screening of his new series “Episodes” […] – in which he plays a guy called … Matt LeBlanc. “People really do come up to me and speak slowly and think I’m Joey.”

Rachel, who plays a character on the show that is “romantically connected” to him, has also talked about this topic at the Ultim’Art Planet Babylon Convention, remarking that there sometimes is “confusion where the actress stops and the character is,” when she was asked if she had gotten any backlash after she had started playing Helena.

2. Update: More evidence that we do have difficulty to distinguish between the actor and a character they play comes from Nurit Tal-Or and Yeal Papirman. In their paper titled “The Fundamental Attribution Error in Attributing Fictional Figures’ Characteristics to the Actors”, they link this difficulty to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)**, our tendency to think that the behavior of other people is influenced by their disposition and not by the situation they’re in – even if we have information that their actions really do depend on the situation. In our case:

Playing a lovable/evil/eccentric character on TV equals lovable/evil/eccentric in real life – even though we know that we are looking at someone who is pretending to be someone else on TV.

Rs_strikeback_noway_2x06Rachel Shelley in Strike Back (Project Dawn).

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of the paper:

[…] In Study 1, we demonstrated that in the audiovisual medium, viewers tend to attribute an actor’s behavior in television dramas to the actor’s personality, ignoring the existence of a script dictating the actor’s behavior. Study 2 replicated this finding, and also demonstrated that the tendency to make the [Fundamental Attribution Error] is related to the degree to which the person reports being transported into the narrative of the TV drama. Furthermore, we showed that the tendency to attribute character traits to the actor is not diminished following exposure to the same actor playing two opposing roles. The last scene viewed was found to determine the evaluation of the actor’s characteristics.

While the FAE** is an established concept in social psychology and other theories the authors are using to explain their findings are well supported by studies cited in the paper, I do think that they should have paid more attention to the age of their participants.

I wouldn’t even know that their experiments were conducted with teenagers (15 to 17 years) if it hadn’t been hammered into the deepest regions of my brain to always, always, always profoundly read the much dreaded methods section of any paper, fight the urge to flip directly to the in most cases conveniently “recappy” discussion section at the end and, especially, to never, ever, ever rely on the abstract alone. And age is kinda important here, especially since several studies have shown age differences in dealing with attributional biases like the FAE**.

If your aim is to generalize your findings to include adults, one of the reasons that teens will probably not make for the most reliable sample may be the pretty heavy development happening in the teenage brain up until the age of about 25 years in parts like the prefrontal cortex, an area that is necessary for, e.g., planning, impulse-control – and forming judgments…



Rachel Shelley in Episodes (image by 3lzyx).

biases like the Fundamental Attribution Error are “shortcuts” our brain uses to let us navigate our complex world without spending too much energy. The effects of these biases can be minimized if we remind ourselves as often as possible that we are susceptible to all different kinds of them and if we are motivated to pay more than just fleeting attention to the person and the situation we are dealing with.


Rachel Shelley in Gray Matters.

Could this mean that the FAE** won’t stand a chance if we just decided to spend some more energy learning about the actor behind the character? Well, here’s our scientific reason to keep obsessing with learning about people we see on TV (or wherever) then, yay!

* And the if-they-play-it-so-well-they-must-(secretly)-share-the-characteristics-of the-role-they-portray-theory does not count as it cannot explain the maaaany skillful con artists that take away millions from maaaany unsuspecting victims, the seemingly-very-much-in-love-with-you-but-secretly-cheating-partners and the contrary-to-what-they-were-making-us-believe-before-the-election-actions of maaaany politicians all over the world, right?!

** I am absolutely certain that my current Doccubus fangirling the effect of motivation on memory retention has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I first think of “Lost Girl” instead of “Fundamental Attribution Error” every time I type FAE, teehee…

This post was last updated on 10/17/11.


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