A new Yale study may offer an explanation for why a six-year-old can love Steve Burns’s larger-than-life performance in “Blue’s Clues” and be unimpressed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
The study — conducted by Thalia Goldstein, professor of psychology at Pace University, and Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale — looked at how children and adults respond to unrealistic, exaggerated acting compared to more realistic, restrained acting. The study found that, while adults valued acting that felt realistic, children had no such preference.
“As adults, we like, reward and prefer people who can do realistic acting even in the most unrealistic of circumstances,” Goldstein said. “We were interested in whether children could tell the differences between this type of acting and the more cued, obvious sorts of pretend [acting], and then which one they thought was more difficult and better.”
Participants — children from the ages of three to five and adults — were shown an actor performing the same scene twice, once in an exaggerated style and once as they might for a standard television show for adults. The subjects were then asked to pick which scene they thought was better. Four-year-old participants preferred the exaggerated style, while three and five-year-olds were more or less ambivalent. Adults, however, overwhelmingly preferred the realistic style.
In the second part of the study, participants were shown a scene of realistic acting and then two separate clips of realistic and unrealistic acting. They were then asked to say which one they thought was more similar to the first scene and which seemed more difficult to do. Children generally thought the exaggerated, zany acting was the more difficult performance, while adults identified the subdued acting as more difficult.
“In realistic acting, there are no cues that the actor is one person enacting someone else,” said Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, who was not involved in the study. “It’s possible that children forget that the person [played by the actor] isn’t actually real. They’re confused by it, they don’t understand that it is difficult.”
While the children may on a surface level recognize that the actor is playing a role, they seem not to recognize that the actor and the character are truly distinct, she added. Children may, for instance, think an actor who plays an evil character is also sinister.
Adults, too, can have a hard time differentiating actors from their characters. The study mentions that Hugh Laurie, who played the eponymous doctor in “House,” was often asked for medical advice by acquaintances, and Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in “Star Trek,” titled his autobiography “I Am Not Spock” in response to how many treated him as if he possessed the same hyper-rational, emotionless personality as his character.
“People have been confused by good acting and they have been for centuries,” said Goldstein. “Cicero talks about not letting actors stay inside the walls of the city-state because since actors are able to portray the emotions and personalities of other people so well, then they must be shifty and not to be trusted.”
While adults can be fooled on some level by exceptionally realistic acting, this perception may be something of a default for children, the study writes. For anything besides the most exaggerated acting, children may see the performance simply as somebody being themselves in front of a camera, which is easier than performing outlandish behaviors.
Burns in “Blue’s Clues,” for instance, may seem to be a talented actor to a child, but Ejiofor might be perceived more as a central figure in a documentary, going about his own life on camera.
The study is the next step in a line of research Goldstein hopes to pursue looking at how children perceive acting, a largely understudied craft in the field of child arts cognition, she said.
Goldstein also wishes to pursue further research on how children perceive the interaction between acting and morality — whether children see immoral acts committed on screen as crossing the “pretend-reality boundary,” thus placing blame on the actor.