The Role Playing Spectrum

Role playing is an important, but underappreciated, phenomenon in the study of human evolution. We can think about role playing as a series of phenomena that sit along a spectrum from life to art, with intermediate categories sitting in between them. While role playing has been associated with the portrayal of fictional characters by trained actors in the theatrical arts for more than 2500 years, theoretical developments in the social psychology of the mid-20th century, spearheaded by thinkers like Erving Goffman (1959), led to the emergence of the concept of role playing in everyday life. The roles that people play in everyday settings are not fictional characters, but instead “personas” associated with people’s functional roles in different social contexts. For example, someone who performs the role of doctor in a hospital setting transitions to the role of customer when they enter a restaurant.

At the “art” end of the role playing spectrum are forms of dramatic acting in which professional actors make strong commitments to portraying fictional characters in large-scale dramatic works, such as in stage plays and feature films. These actors present themselves as characters whom they are not during extended performances, and interact with other people on stage as these characters. These are not personas of the self, but instead other people.

In between the role playing of life and that of art is an intermediate category along the spectrum that I refer to as “proto-acting” (Brown, 2017) or transient acts of character portrayal. The defining feature of proto-acting is personal mimicry, but this occurs on a much shorter time scale than in dramatic acting. The forms of proto-acting are quite diverse, extending across life and art. Perhaps the most fundamental form in everyday life is quoting someone during a conversation During quotation, we temporarily become some other person – through changes in our voice, words, facial expression, posture, gesturing, and/or manner of moving – and then revert back to our selves after the quotation is done. Something similar happens when a parent reads a bedtime story to their child and portrays the characters during the segments of dialogue. Other examples of proto-acting include pretend play in children, the character portrayal that takes place during drama therapy, and people’s engagement in role-playing video games. 

Acting like vs. Acting as

These phenomena of personal mimicry – whether through short-term proto-acting or full-fledged dramatic acting– constitute what I will refer to as “acting as,” which are times when people present themselves in public as someone whom they are not. However, there is a distinct, but related, phenomenon of behaving similarly to other people that I will refer to as “acting like.” It deals with the importance of social emulation – in other words, acting like other people – for the evolution of culture.

One of the biggest drivers of social cooperation in cultural evolution is inter-group competition, which is a selection pressure that enhances mechanisms that lead people to cooperate with one another and make sacrifices on behalf of their social group. Cultural evolutionary theorists tell us that such mechanisms operate best when people strive to be most similar to one another through conformity mechanisms, thereby increasing their self-identification with the group. Conformity essentially homogenizes human behavior. This is thought to be adaptive for cultural evolution because it dampens within-group differences between people, thereby amplifying between-group differences, which themselves contribute to the evolution of cooperation through cultural and genetic means (Boyd & Richerson, 2005; Richerson et al., 2016; Sober & Wilson, 1998). Conformity is a process of “acting like” others around us. It is defined as copying the most prevalent behavior in a population. In conformity, we emulate other people, from their manners of behaving to the products they consume (e.g., clothing, music, cars). “Acting like” in this sense is a form of social emulation whereby we model our actions on the behaviors of those around us. This often occurs as a means of fitting in with the crowd and/or enhancing the integrity of a group.

“Acting like” is found quite prominently in the arts as well. This applies to practices of group chorusing and dancing that are done in unison such that every person performs the same part at the same time, for example when people sing “Happy Birthday” at a party or dance a bunny hop at a wedding. The anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1922) argued that unison chorusing represents a group of people speaking as if with one voice, and that unison dancing represents a group of people moving as if with one body. These are the most “organismal” forms of group behavior in the repertoire of human social interaction. As mentioned above, such homogenization of group behavior is evolutionarily adaptive since it dampens within-group differences between people, thereby enhancing salient cultural differences between groups in situations of inter-group conflict.


Role playing has been a highly underappreciated process in human evolution. It is a feature not only of the theatrical arts, but of everyday social interactions. By means of the phenomena of personal mimicry, we are able to “act as” some person whom we ourselves are not in a public setting. This can be as transient as quoting a friend during a conversation and as extensive as performing the role of Romeo or Juliet during a 3-hour stage performance. However, there are other means of behaving in a similar manner to another person in which we do not impersonate them, but merely emulate their behavior. This might happen when we learn a motor skill from a teacher or conform to the consumer choices of the masses. This process of “acting like” is a critically important mechanism in cultural evolution since it leads to social conformity and the homogenization of group behavior. Overall, the study of human evolution needs to give greater consideration to role playing and its diverse manifestations in both life and art. 


Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2005). The origins and evolution of cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, S. (2017). Proto-acting as a new concept: Personal mimicry and the origins of role playing. Humanities, 6, 43.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. (1922). The Andaman islanders: A study in social anthropology. London: Cambridge University Press.

Richerson, P., Baldini, R., Bell, A. V., Demps, K., Frost, K., Hillis, V., … Zefferman, M. (2016). Cultural group selection plays an essential role in explaining human cooperation: A sketch of the evidence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39, e30.

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.