Goldstein, T. R. (2011). Correlations among social-cognitive skills in adolescents involved in acting or arts classes. Mind, brain, and education, 5(2), 97-103.


This quasi-experimental study measured correlations between the development of empathy, theory of mind (“an everyday understanding of what someone else is thinking or feeling” (p. 97)), and adaptive emotion regulation (“the ability to understand and control ones’ emotions, both positive and negative” (p. 98)) among students attending performing and visual arts high schools. The purpose of the study was to discover how arts-training interacts with various emotional and social-cognitive skills. The researchers administered a series of tests for theory of mind, empathy, and emotion regulation to three different groups of students—one majoring in acting, one in music, and one visual art—at the beginning of the school year and ten months later at the end of the year. The results showed that with acting training, students distinguished between empathy, theory of mind, and emotion regulation as separate abilities, while for the students with music or art training the three social-cognitive skills were more often confounded or equated to one another with little difference in distinction.

Key Findings:

At pretest, none of the measures for empathy, theory of mind, and emotion regulation correlated in the non-actor groups while empathy and theory of mind were correlated for the actor group. After a year of arts training, the social-cognitive skills of the non-actor groups became more linked while in the actor group empathy and theory of mind were no longer correlated. Based on the acting group’s shift from empathy and theory of mind correlating at the pretest but not at the posttest and their training in character motivations and emotions, the acting students seemed to separate theory of mind from emotion regulation and empathy. In other words, the acting group developed theory of mind as its own skill unlike the visual art and music students for whom theory of mind, empathy, and emotion regulation were confounded and/or equated as overlapping or similar skills.

Significance of the Findings:

This research correlates the study of acting by high school students with increased levels of theory of mind and empathy and a distinction between the two. It also shows that acting students developed adaptive emotion skills as distinct from empathy and theory of mind. Other research on empathy, theory of mind, and adaptive emotion regulation focuses on early developmental stages. This study suggests that not only do these social-cognitive skills continue to develop throughout adolescence, but also that students who study acting develop them at a higher level than students who study other art forms.


The participants were comprised of 28 students majoring in acting and 25 students majoring in art or music at one of two arts high schools. All students had previous experience in their art form but none had received high-intensity training. Students, ranging in age from 13 to 16 years old, were beginning their freshman year and had been accepted to the school and department through an audition or portfolio process. The non-acting and acting groups were matched in socio-economic status, age, gender distribution, and verbal ability.

The researchers administered a series of measures to groups of five to eight students at a time to evaluate their empathy, theory of mind, and emotion regulation at the beginning of the school year and then again 10 months later. These measures assessed multiple variables regarding the students’ social-cognitive skills including but not limited to their ability to feel empathy for a fictional character, their ability to recognize mental states from still photographs of a person’s eyes, and their acceptance and rejection of their own emotions. Each student completed a total of seven measures in a random order including two each for theory of mind and empathy and three for emotion regulation. The researchers analyzed the scores in separate correlation matrices.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers were unable to randomly assign students to arts groups, instead working with students who had already chosen an art form. They also did not control for alternative variables such as executive control, vocabulary level or pro-sociality, which have been found to correlate to the measures that were used.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How do the levels of theory of mind, empathy, and emotion regulation compare between visual art, music and/or theater students and students with limited or no arts training? How do the correlations change after four years of arts training?