Actors really are more emotionally unstable than the rest of us

Acting can mess with your head. With every audition or booking an artist needs to be empathetic, to Go There, to blur the line between herself and an entirely fictional character. Throw in the constant rejection and scrutiny that comes with even a successful acting career and you’ve got a recipe for emotional imbalance.

A psychology study comparing 214 professional actors to a cohort of non-acting North Americans has in fact found significantly higher rates of disordered personality traits in the thespians. The study, co-authored by actor Mark Davison and University College London psychology professor Adrian Furnham, is forthcoming in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

In the study, male and female actors alike scored significantly higher on measures of antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, schizotypal, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder traits than non-actor peers, as defined by the Coolidge Axis-II inventory of personality disorders. Male actors had significantly more traits for dependent and avoidant personality disorders as well.

It’s worth noting here, before you start blocking texts from that friend trying to break into commercials in LA, that there’s a difference between having schizotypal traits, for example, and actually having full-blown Schizotypal Personality Disorder. None of the respondents had known psychological diagnoses.

In fact, in the right amounts and the right profession, some of these traits can actually contribute to success. Previous research has shown that narcissists make good first impressions and thrive in front of an audience—both crucial skills in an audition. They also tend to display the kind of narcissistic tendencies that make them crave the spotlight for themselves, but not those that make them want to tear others down.

There’s another potential explanation for the apparently higher rates of disordered personalities in the stage and screen, the authors point out. Survey data was self-reported. It could be that the emotional exploration the craft requires means that actors are better at identifying and acknowledging negative traits in themselves than the rest of us are.

That said, the authors acknowledge one looming question that their research doesn’t answer: Does acting attract unbalanced people, or do the unusual emotional demands of the profession make people unbalanced?