Live Theater and Reading the Emotions of Others


Tomorrow Education Next will be publishing our new random-assignment experiment on what students learn from seeing live theater.  One outcome we examined is whether students assigned by lottery to seeing live performances of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol developed a stronger ability to read the emotions of others.

To test this we used the adolescent version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), which was developed by British psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, and his colleagues. RMET consists of photos, like the one pictured above, cropped so that just a person’s eyes are showing.  Subjects are then asked to choose from a set of four possible answers to identify what the pictured person is thinking or feeling. Baron-Cohen (who is actually Sacha’s cousin) originally developed this measure to study people with autism, who tend to have a harder time reading the emotions of others.  More recently research published in the journal, Science, found that people who were assigned by lottery to read literary fiction performed better on the RMET.  Literature appears to strengthen our Theory of Mind, as it is called.  Theory of Mind is an incredibly important social skill (as any parent of someone with autism could tell you), and is an important precursor to other useful outcomes, like empathy and effective use of language.

We suspected that seeing live theater might have an effect on RMET similar to reading literature.  We also looked at whether seeing live theater altered student tolerance as well as improved their knowledge of plots and vocabulary more than if they read or watched movies of works.  And we looked at whether seeing live theater altered student desire to attend or participate in theater in the future.

Go to Education Next tomorrow to see our results.

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