Live theatre can boost empathy and pro-social behavior, according to new research

Watching a live theatre production can increase empathy for the groups depicted in the plays and may even result in real changes in charitable behavior, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The findings shed light on how the consumption of fictional narratives can alter people’s socio-political beliefs and their behavior towards others.

Though theatre has been an important part of human culture for centuries, little is known about its potential psychological impacts on viewers. The authors of the new study were interested is seeing whether attending a live play could have a measurable impact on empathy.

“I was very involved in the theatre community growing up in Portland, Oregon. I was an actor and a playwright, and still remained very interested in theatre as I began to study psychology in college,” said study author Steven Rathje, a PhD student at Trinity College Cambridge. “There was surprisingly little psychology research on the effects of live theatre or the arts more broadly, so I approached Jamil Zaki — an expert in the psychology of empathy — about conducting a study on this topic.”

The researchers conducted three field studies in which they surveyed 1,622 audience members either immediately before or immediately after seeing a live theatre production. The participants completed a measure of their attitudes towards racial discrimination, income inequality, welfare, corporate regulations, wealth redistribution, and affirmative action. They also completed assessments of empathy and charitable giving.

“We worked with two different theatre companies — Artists Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater — to conduct this study,” Rathje said. The study included audience members from three different plays: “Skeleton Crew,” which is about auto workers in Detroit after the 2008 financial crisis; “Sweat,” which is about factory workers in one of the poorest towns in the United States; and “Wolf Play,” which is about a same-sex couple trying to adopt a child.

“We found that after, as opposed to before, seeing the plays, audience members reported feeling more empathy for the groups of people depicted in the plays and changed their attitudes about political issues related to the plays,” Rathje told PsyPost. “Additionally, seeing theatre changed people’s behavior. After seeing the plays, people donated more to charity — whether or not the charity was related to the topics in the plays.”

The researchers also found evidence that narrative transportation played a role in these effects. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “The play affected me emotionally” and “I could picture myself in the scenes of the events shown in the play” were more likely to show higher levels of empathy and charitable behavior.

The findings are in line with previous research, which has found that consuming literary fiction is associated with heightened levels of empathy and can promote collective action on behalf of disadvantaged groups.

“One important question we still need to address in future work is how the effects of live theatre compare to that of other, non-live artforms. Past research shows that reading fiction can increase empathy and improve social cognition, but it is currently unclear whether live artforms may have a larger impact than things like fiction or film,” Rathje said.

“Past research finds that collective experiences are more intense than solitary ones, so we suspect that there might be something special about live theatre, but future research needs to figure this out. Even though the arts are a huge part of the human experience, this is an understudied topic in psychology, so I hope that there will be more research on this topic soon.”

Future research could also examine the long-term effects of consuming theatre and whether different types of plays are associated with different outcomes.

“We’ve been very happy with the response that this article received from the theatre community. For instance, we recently held an online conversation about theatre and empathy with Phillipa Soo (from the musical ‘Hamilton’ and much more), and we’ve received a positive response from several other artists as well,” Rathje added.

“I think it would be excellent to have more collaborations between scientists and artists. Especially as arts funding is being threatened and arts in schools are being cut, it’s essential to have research on the impact of the arts and share the outcomes of this research with the arts world and beyond.”

The study, “Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior,” was authored by Steve Rathje, Leor Hackel, and Jamil Zaki.