Moral Development Through Our Role as Actors

I have recently become tired of highly philosophical books that I have read that boil morality down to a calculus. In this essay, I attempt to use social and child development to articulate moral development and its usefulness and necessity. To do so, I’m using my background in psychology and especially a few handy resources such as “The Essential Child” and “The Art and Science of Personality Development”, to name a few.


We are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. Morality is crucial to our performance because it will either bring applause or boos from our audience. And if there is one thing that is universal for all actors it’s this: we desperately care about what our audience thinks. No one wants to be the villain held in contempt by his community. To the contrary, we see ourselves in a theatrical performance as a protagonist who is beloved.

I am an actor whose morality is shaped by my audience. This morning, I held back from confronting a rude customer at Starbucks. Why is it that I restrained myself from, say, strangling the discourteous man who was taking out his anger on the barista? Well, because going off-script with aggression is not a scene that I want my audience to see. I’ve been a regular at this Starbucks for the last four years, and have perfected my role. I am ‘the professional’, friendly and well-dressed guy who sits in the corner and reads voraciously. If I were to impulsively strangle a rude customer, then the perception from my Starbucks audience would completely change my role. I would then become the well-dressed guy who may be a psychopath. Thus, I try to regulate my emotions so that I can stay in-character and on-script for a successful performance that is similar to the calm and cool Fox Mulder in The X Files, rather than Hannibal Lecter.

We don’t realize it, but we shape ourselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person and context to the next. We care about the perception of others because their perception is what helps us cultivate our acting role into, for example, loving spouse, loyal employee, trusting colleague, etc. As Charles Cooley long ago articulated through a tongue-twister, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” The point is that people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them. We form our self-image as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and other important people look at a child as honest and humble, they will tend to raise him with certain types of expectations. As a consequence, the child will eventually strive to uphold the morally good role of honest and humble person.


We are all actors in the grand stage of life, and we desperately want our performance to mean something before the final curtain closes on our life. Our birth is our entry onto the theatrical stage, and we slowly morph and hone our role and script. Our everyday social life is no different than what happens on the theatrical stage. Simply put, social behavior as a series of performances through which actors play roles and enact scripts in order to manage the impressions of other characters in the social scene (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 42).

Our acting debut begins at birth, in which our audience is immediately captivated. From the standpoint of the social world into which they are thrown at birth, infants’ actions are interpreted in pretty much the same way that human beings interpret the social actions expressed by any other animate actor. We watch our babies the way we watch the characters in a movie. We observe every moment in order to make sense of what they are trying to express, especially eager to decode their emotions. Babies are social actors long before they realize they are social actors. They are social actors because that is what we, the social audience, observe them to be.


Let’s go deeper into the different aspects of moral development with respect to our role as social actors.

Writing the Script

The script for moral development begins with genes and environment. Genes and environments seem to work together on many different levels and in extraordinary ingenious ways. The relationship between genes and environments, therefore, is not much like a meeting of two independent forces (nature vs. nurture) but instead resembles something like a conspiracy. Nature shamelessly colludes with nurture. In the human case, genes and environments conspire to make a person, and to shape the traits that structure how that person moves through life as an actor on the social stage.

Northwestern University Professor, Dan McAdams, uses the example of a smiley baby to make the case. Let’s say a 4-month old infant is blessed with a genotype that predisposes him or her to positive emotionality and sociability. As a social actor, he or she smiles more than other babies do in response to social stimuli, and people (the audience) respond in kind. Smiling begets more positive interactions from other people, who themselves become major features of the developing infant’s “environment.” These environments feed-back to influence the development of the infant’s dispositional traits. A smiley baby will likely encounter more positive environments than a nonsmiley baby will encounter, by virtue of the fact that social actors evoke specific environments. Those evoked environments, in turn, may influence the development of the social actor’s traits (The Art and Science of Personality of Personality Development, 103).

kknmIn contrast to a smiley infant, an infant who hits other babies will evoke (hopefully) unfavorable reactions from the audience. To be clear, babies are born with preexisting tendencies, that are either reinforced or harnessed based on the response of the audience. You might say that the genes make the first move: the genotype expresses itself through behaviors that signal positive emotionality. Those behaviors then evoke responses that, as environmental influences, may subsequently exert an effect on the developing social actor. As the infant progresses into adolescence, he or she cultivates a rank-order of traits that evoke either favorable or unfavorable responses from the audience.

Setting the Stage

Setting the stage for social actors is one of the most crucial factors in moral development. In essence, the stage is the environment that one is born into. The stage includes socio-economic factors, education of parents, methods for disciplining/punishing, familial dynamics, and how authoritative yet nurturing the stage is for the developing social actor. In one longitudinal study, the researchers found that boys from low socioeconomic status who were raised in adverse family environments, and who exhibited low levels of fearfulness, empathy, and self-control as kindergartners, were especially likely to join deviant peer groups as teenagers (Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 562-568). While the stage that parents set is important, it doesn’t guarantee that their tiny actor will hop on the yellow brick road of positive emotionality.


Acting Style

If you were casting yourself in a Hollywood blockbuster, would you assume the role of an affable fun-loving protagonist or the angst-filled and aggressive antagonist that people avoid? We have to be honest: no reasonable minded human being would willingly choose the latter. A life driven by neuroticism and aggression is a miserable life. Furthermore, this is a life that will get you ostracized from all people. So, how do we assume a character that is more like Pollyanna as opposed to the Joker in the Dark Knight?

wdwAn acting style that is positive and extraverted will garner more favorable and encouraging reinforcement from the audience than one negative and introverted. To be clear, the actors style have to do with his or her temperament. The most notable features of temperament concern the actor’s performance of emotion – how the infant expresses and regulates the feelings that well up inside. Taking into consideration the difference in Pollyanna and the Joker, we have two broad emotional categories that include both positive and negative emotionality. Ask any parent and they will affirm that some babies feel good much of the time, and other babies don’t.

Why is positive emotionality in extravasation good? Extraversion’s prime evolutionary function is to attract and hold the attention of other social actors. For the particular kind of eusocial species that human beings have evolved to be, social actors show remarkable individual differences in their abilities to get along and get ahead in social groups. Social actors compete with each other to garner the limited resources that are available in the group.

Positive emotionality and extraversion is fostered in nurturing environments that is both authoritative and loving. Positive reinforcement when good actions are performed will help the actor understand how to garner praise from the audience. In contrast, punishment for bad actions will help the actor know that receiving boos is not a good thing. These experiences in early childhood help the young actor to solidify his or her leading role.

A friend of mine has a 12-year-old daughter who has morphed into the a virtuous role: peace-maker. She is a very positive and outgoing actor who knows how to read her audience well. My friend tells the story of when he overheard a dramatic event his daughter found herself in the middle of. Her three friends were arguing, and tensions were running high. Sensing that feelings were being hurt, his daughter manipulated the situation by causing a distraction. Her iPod was playing a popular song and she turned the music up. Within seconds, the group of girls were dancing, and the argument became a distant memory. In summary, his 12-year-old new knew the movie scene she was in was turning into a tragedy. She was aware that name-calling and slander evokes negative responses most audiences. Thus, her distraction altered the scene from a tragedy to something out of Nickelodeon. Interestingly enough, she is 20-years old now, and her ethics are still guided by fostering environments in which peace and compassion is fostered.

Going Off-Script

In 1981, Friday’s was featured on NBC as a new up-and-coming comedy. After initial low ratings, the producers decided to spice things up by bringing in a controversial comedian, Andy Kauffman. In his debut on the show, the producers along with Kauffman, conspired to have Kauffman go off-script and have a melt-down on live T.V. Unbeknownst to the rest of the cast and viewers at home, Kauffman enters the scene and immediately breaks off-script and tensions begin to flare on set. Eventually, a fight breaks out between Kauffman and Michael Richards, who is the only person in the scene who is aware that this is all staged. As you watch the other actors, you can see their frustration as Andy Kauffman emotionally disintegrates. Media and viewers alike showed their shock and discontent as Kauffman did the unthinkable by going off-script.

yuybiuhGoing off-script involves a type of neurotic cascade. Neuroticism has to do with the fear and anxiety a social actor has. The neurotic actor is one who is more reactive to signs if threat and negative emotion in the social world. They are exposed to more negative events which reinforces their tendency to appraise objectively neutral or even positive events in negative terms. They also experience mood spillover, whereby negative feelings in one area of life spill over into others. This leads to the sting of familiar problems. As they depict it, a day’s negative events can bring back into psychological play old issues and conflicts that were never resolved, which leads to more negative feelings, thoughts, and actions.

One can see the negative whirlpool that engulfs the neurotic actor. It’s definitely more of a Quentin Tarantino drama rather than a light-hearted comedy with a happy ending. You see, the neurotic actor is one who doesn’t receive the appropriate lessons while going through acting school. Or perhaps, his or her neurological make-up leans heavy towards fear and anxiety. Either way, the neurotic actor will display negative emotionality, poor social development, and difficulty managing impulses. The net result is a moral compass that struggles to point its needle toward the good and personal flourishment.

Staying on Script

As a whole, there is a grain and texture to all cultures that involves a script. The script is this: the more conscientious and agreeable you are, the better off you and everyone else will be. Staying on-script involves thinking about the other actors around you, learning how to interact with the roles that they have assumed. Moreover, staying on script means that you are working with the other actors to bring out the best for your audience.

[Self Regulate]

yviyughvStaying on script means that the social actor is able to regulate his or her performance on a daily basis. Self-regulation depends on the observation of the actor by an audience, be that audience in the real world or in the actor’s mind. Something or someone must keep watch. Actors watch other actions, which means they watch themselves as well. In social life, we each function simultaneously as actors and observers, as audiences for each other and for our own dramatic performances. In this reflective, observing sense, we regulate each other, and ourselves.

Over time, children learn which behaviors bring social approbation and which bring critique. As they seek to maximize reward and the feel-good experience of pride and minimize punishment and the feel-bad emotions of shame and guilt, children will gradually become something like the socialized and self-regulated actors that their ever-watchful audiences – parents, teachers, coaches, and superegos – want them to become.

[Effortful Control]

While self-regulation helps social actors fine-tune their role, this would be impossible without effortful control. Think of effortful control as the actor’s ability to stay in-character and follow the script. What is prompting you not run the person off the road who cuts you off, or pummel the barista who makes you the wrong drink? It’s effortful control. Effortful control is the active and voluntary capacity to withhold a dominant response in order to enact a subordinate response given situational demands. It consists of a collection of abilities and inclinations that centrally involve the executive control of attention and the inhibition of potentially distracting impulses.


jhbkjhbijbSelf-regulation and effortful control may help us to understand how to stay on-script, but it doesn’t tell us why. In order to address this concern, we have to understand that every cognitively intact human being has a conscience. A conscience comes into fruition around 4-5 years of age and consists of two key components: rule-compatible conduct and moral emotions. Social actors exhibit an active conscience when they act in ways that are consistent with what the group norms suggest to be moral or good behavior. For young children, this typically boils down to doing what Mommy and Daddy say is the right thing to do, which often means putting on the brakes on what may seem to be the fun thing to do. Being able to subordinate impulses to longer-term aims in the family paves the way for rule compliance and the ability to cooperate with other authority figures and with peers on the broader social stages of the school and the playground.  Key moral emotions for the development of conscience include guilt and empathy.

Every society has rules for behavior and etiquette protocol that serve as heuristic tools to harness destructive behavior. As the child learns what these tools are, they invariably form social-moral emotions like embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride. Guilt, for example, serves as a check against immoral behavior for many people. Research consistently shows that the proclivity to feel guilt is negatively associated with immoral behavior. For example, web based studies of adults from across the United States have shown that people who score high on measures of guilt-proneness make fewer unethical business decisions, commit fewer delinquent behaviors, and behave more honestly when making economic decisions (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21). Guilt is good for you (usually), and good for the group. Guilt is one of the most powerful mechanisms ever invented by natural selection to ensure group solidarity and the self-regulation of individual social actors.

The net result of the actor who stays on script is that they will have a more pleasant performance on the grand stage of life. The self-regulated actor possessing effortful control and a conscience with moral emotions will be a conscientious and agreeable actor. But what’s so good about the conscientious and agreeable actor?

[conscientious and agreeable]

The conscientious and agreeable actor will me be the most aware of a moral system that benefits his role in the play, as well as the other actors around him. Conscientiousness encompasses characteristics of personality that center on hard-working, self-disciplined, responsible, reliable, dutiful, well organized, and how persevering a social actor is. People low in conscientious have little regard for the serious standards of work and morality. While their impulsive spontaneity may seem like a breath of fresh air in the face of stale social conventions, their irresponsibility and utter inability to stand by others or for anything in the long run make them very poor risks in friendship and in love.

dyuuyuSocial actors high in agreeableness are really nice people. But they are more than nice. Agreeableness incorporates the expressive qualities of love and empathy, friendliness, cooperation, and care. Social actors at the high end of agreeable continuum are described as interpersonally warm, cooperative, accommodating, helpful and patient. They are also described as ethical, honest, and peace-loving. For high levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness, as expressed in the realms of love, work, and healthy and mortality. The two traits are different, and share some common outcomes. For example, conscientiousness and agreeableness are both associated with more secure attachment relationships, better marriages and lower divorce rates, and a stronger personal investment in family roles (Psychological Bulletin, 126).

Final Words

Let’s face it, it is very difficult even to conceive of a niche in the world of work where it does not prove advantageous to be self-disciplined, responsible, and achievement-oriented. In the terms made famous by Freud, conscientiousness and agreeableness are fundamentally about restraining the impulsive id and accentuating the rational ego, or put differently, about regulating the self so that good things get done and good relationships get formed.

meaningfulWe are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. For me, I hope to continue to evolve my character in order to bring about more good in my performance than bad. I strive for good and wholesome morals because I want to please my audience, thereby pleasing myself. One day I will enter my closing act and final scene. I can only hope that my performance has brought joy, insight, and inspiration to my audience. But for now, the show must go on.