How Attending Live Theater Builds Empathy

Theater as an art form is ancient. The performing arts have been a part of human culture forever, which isn’t surprising given our never-ending hunger for entertainment and joy. But our need for theater also serves a deeper purpose: it explores the human condition in a way few other mediums are able and has the power to change attitudes, encourage empathy, and promote prosocial behavior among audience goers. It allows us to open our minds and flourish as people–and that’s a fact supported by science. 

While movies and other forms of media have also been shown to influence our thoughts and biases, the theater is a little different because of its live-action component. At a movie, you walk in knowing that everything has already been completely predetermined: each beat, each blink of an actor’s eye, and each sound is destined to the same millisecond every time. It’s comfortable and predictable. But at a live theater, the performance is alive. The heroines and villains are there in that dark room with you, creating a uniquely personal dynamic through a colorful cast of characters, props, and impassioned monologues. And because live stages are much more limited in scope than movie sets, these stories have to rely on their characters’ human interactions to sell a good story.

So, onto the science. A classic finding in sociology is that repeated, positive encounters with people unlike ourselves can build empathy and counteract prejudice. It’s why college students from conservative backgrounds often graduate as bleeding heart liberals. For many, encounters with “different” people are few and far between, and that’s where storytelling comes in! Storytelling gives us a chance to see the experiences of people from various walks of life and in environments unlike our own, and that may be why psychologists have found that effective efforts to reduce prejudice often incorporate storytelling.

In fact, there’s been a whole study done specifically on live theater’s effect on empathy and prejudice. In 2021, a group of researchers with the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab partnered with two theater companies–the Public Theater in New York and Artists Repertory Theatre in Oregon–to survey over 1,600 theatergoers either before or after they attended a production of three plays. One of the plays, “Wolf Play,” is about a lesbian couple trying to adopt. Another play, “Skeleton Crew”, touches on the lives of auto workers in Detroit at the start of the financial crisis. Attendees were also surveyed about “Sweat”, a play that depicts a working-class factory in Pennsylvania. 

On alternating nights, attendees were surveyed either before or after these shows. They were asked a series of questions about their empathy for the groups depicted in the plays, such as the same-sex couple from “Wolf Play.” The attendees were also asked about their beliefs on a number of issues, such as inequality and racism. The results? The lab found that audience members expressed much higher empathy for the groups depicted onstage and “changed their attitudes about a wide range of political issues.” The plays also changed the theatergoers’ behavior; when given the option to keep their payment for completing the study or give that money to charity, the majority of them chose to donate to charity–whether or not the charity was related to the topics in the plays. While the sample size of this study was small, the results showed an 11% increase in giving, and prosocial behavior. Now that’s art.

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