October 19, 2011

Greatest actors came of age in rising-crime times (background)

(I'm chopping this up into a short series of posts. In the next couple days I'll present and analyze some data. Today is just the motivation.)

To be truly convincing in their roles, actors must both have a wealth of emotions and personal experiences to draw on (or else they could only play themselves), and they must be comfortable enough in stepping out of their ordinary persona and assuming that of another (otherwise it looks forced or wooden).

An era of rising violence rates makes both of those traits more common. First, people are more out and about in a world that's getting more dangerous, so they're getting exposed to a far broader range of experiences than the more sheltered people of safer times. Tougher times also mean we have to make tougher decisions, so they explore places in the emotional spectrum that more insulated people do not have to.

For instance, in a world where rape is more common, there will be more borderline cases as well. You will therefore see and hear about more of these hard-to-call cases -- how should you respond? It's not clear, and you feel a wider range of emotional responses, not to mention the conflict between them at various points in your reflection.

And second, the steady rise of disorder during rising-crime times reveals the old ways to be broken -- at least for now -- so that new solutions must be sought. Not just for crime control, but across social life broadly. So people become less conformist -- a little at first, when they still hope the old ways can be easily repaired (like during the '60s and early '70s), and then really kicking off during the apocalyptic second half of a crime wave. Now that people are less on-alert for whether they're stepping outside the boundaries of their proper role, they find it easier to slip into another persona.

Falling-crime times have the opposite effect: the trend toward cocooning leaves people with a shallow pool of emotions and experiences to plumb, and their conformity makes it tough to behave differently without setting off their inner shock collar.

We undergo our major social development during puberty, and our basic worldview gels into place by around 30. So it's really how much of that "critical period," and especially the earlier part, you spend in rising-crime times that affects how cut out for acting you'll be. Even when less powerful movies are being made during falling-crime times, you'll still have had that different formative experience that will last and serve as inspiration.

I think this applies more broadly to any creative, step-outside-of-yourself endeavor, such as making music. For now I'm sticking with acting, and the next post will present birth year data on the actors of classical Hollywood to illustrate the points made here.


  1. A while back you had a post saying that guys have more facial hair (or maybe just beards) during low crime times. Slate has an article on religious encouragement or prohibition of beards. No mention of the Taliban's rule against beardless boys in camp.

  2. Your theory is interesting, but I think the reality is simpler: criminals and actors both tend to be high-testosterone males("alphas"), so a spike in crime also means a spike in quality actors.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."