Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Essentials Online starting soon. • Call for a Free Informational Session • (323) 836-2176

the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”

What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism for precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

There’s a play I work on sometimes in scene work in class. In the scene, a woman at a party is being pressed to accept an invitation to go away with a guy to a cabin for the weekend. This is the only scene she appears in. Elsewhere in the script, other characters mention the fact that she was raped when she was eleven. This remark goes by really quickly, but it’s definitely there. Now, invariably, when a pair of students put the scene up, and I ask the actor playing the woman about the rape, she looks at me blankly. She may know what I am referring to, but she can tell me nothing about who did it, where it took place, whom she told about it and whom she didn’t, etc. Clearly, the incident of the rape is going to bear on someone’s decision to go away to a cabin with a man she doesn’t know well. And it’s not that the actor is a slacker. It’s just that, for whatever reason, she has chosen not to examine the incident in question.

This impulse to NOT examine information furnished by a script, especially information about aspects of the character’s experience that is unfamiliar to the actor, is what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. Rather than examine the unexamined and become acquainted with the unfamiliar, we seem to have a powerful impulse to avoid confronting the unknown. We are “information-averse”, to use the terminology from the NPR piece. We want to feel, it seems, that we can handle the role without doing the extra work. Why do we do this? Good question. I suspect it often has to do with not wanting to confront the limits of our own experience and knowledge of the world, or, more precisely, not wanting to admit that there ARE such limits. Once we acknowledge the existence of said limits, we know we will be asked to go beyond them, and well, here be dragons.

It’s a long journey, but the actor has to train her mind so that she catches herself in such moments of recoil from the unknown, and instead hugs the unknown close, clings to it, tames it, allows it to bear her into destinations unknown, far beyond the borders of her comfort zone. If that’s not an intensely rewarding proposition, albeit a challenging one, then the actor may need to ask herself if she has indeed found the right profession.