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BWW Blog: Behavioral Science and Theatre

To create great theatre, we must apply cognitive science and psychology. 

To captivate audiences from the moment the curtain rises, designers and composers must understand perceptual and attention processes. To guarantee sold out performances, producers must understand failures in judgment and decision making since consumers are not always rational. To become a character, an actor must understand their character's behaviors. To create great theatre, we must apply cognitive science and psychology.

Over the past year, I have fallen in love with these two fields of behavioral science, and I am thrilled to be majoring in them at the University of Pennsylvania. Although these fields share many similarities, they also differ drastically in their goals and approaches. Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior whereas cognitive science is the study of intelligent systems, such as the mind, and their processes. Students majoring in psychology will take classes in statistics, neuroscience, development, perception, social psychology, decision making, abnormal psychology, and more. In contrast, students majoring in cognitive science will take all the preceding courses, except social and abnormal psychology, as well as courses in linguistics, computer science, philosophy, and mathematics.

So how do these fields of behavioral science have anything to do with theatre? Let's start with the playwright. If one is writing a play or musical, they must know the workings of the language of the era they are writing in. Linguistics allows a playwright, as well as a lyricist, to break down the grammar and syntax of a language as well as know the social and cultural influences on a language. Moreover, a playwright must know how to create characters with realistic behaviors. Thus, the playwright must understand how their characters process the world, which is the basis of the intersection of cognitive science and psychology: cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology studies the mental processes of the human mind, or how the human mind processes information.

In fact, playwrights, directors, and actors should all understand how characters process the world and behave. For instance, they must know how characters sense and perceive the environment and other characters, how characters and their behaviors develop throughout their lifespan, how characters function in social settings, and how characters make decisions. Playwrights, directors, and actors must also comprehend abnormal psychology if characters have mental illnesses or cognitive disorders.

Furthermore, designers and composers benefit from gaining insights into psychology and cognitive science. They must have a technical understanding of sensation and perception in addition to attention processes. Sensation and perception allows designers to create effective optical illusions with lighting, costume, and set design as well as auditory illusions through sound design. Perception helps composers understand the science behind harmonies and how music is interpreted by the brain. Attention processes are also essential to design and composition because an audience's attention must be held, but not overworked or misguided. On top of that, designers and composers can technologically advance their work with computer science by learning how to code.

Lastly, producers have a lot to gain from behavioral science, especially from the realm of behavioral economics and decision making. Consumers are not always rational when it comes to deciding what to purchase, so knowing how people tend to be irrational can reinvent marketing strategies. People do not always make decisions based on standard economic theories and models since they have biases and use heuristics. For instance, if consumers were always rational, then they would follow procedure invariance which means that consumers would always have the same preferences out of a group of options no matter how these options are framed. However, when questions, or even sales, are worded differently, people sometimes have different preferences. Beyond decision making, producers also should learn about social psychology to ensure casts and crews function well together. More importantly, social psychology can help producers be cognizant of implicit biases that arise in forming casts and crews.

This is not at all an exhaustive list of who in the theatre industry would benefit from cognitive science and psychology nor what these fields can provide for those discussed, but it is surely indicative of the power of the behavioral sciences. Any college student seeking to work in the theatre industry in any role should consider taking courses in the behavioral sciences or even pursuing a major or minor in cognitive science or psychology. The human mind is a complex puzzle, but working towards putting it together is a valuable task for the theatre makers of today and tomorrow.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Blake Velick