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The Dichotomy of Human Behaviour

Wednesday 27th February

“I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this space, whilst someone is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. (Peter Brook, Theatre Director).

When Peter Brook verbalised his theory of theatre, he must have had in mind the words of William Shakespeare, (written some 370 years earlier)…

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”

It could be argued that Shakespeare should have been acknowledged as one of the greatest social psychologists of his day (?) A people watcher, a character analyser, constructing complicated stories and interactions given the bare materials of the human interactions he observed in his everyday life. However, his words, (‘The Seven Stages of Life’ speech, spoken by Jacques, “As You Like It”), intended to be nothing more than a poetic observation of life, may be the basis for the observations and book, written in 1956, by Canadian Sociologist Erving Goffman, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday life”.

Goffman’s ‘dramaturgical theory’ acknowledges and gives credence to the Great Bard’s words. The theory alludes elements of human interactions are dependent upon time, place, and audience. In other words, to Goffman, the self is a sense of who one is, a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate scene being presented.”

Yes, life is a performance and we are all performers and each one of us will play many parts! We are on a ‘social stage’ creating impressions of ourselves, depending on the audience. The way we dress, the way we act, the things we say, (in a social setting), may not always be a true reflection but a portrayal of how we want to be perceived within that social setting! When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves; a ‘Social Identity’. This identity is the sum of time, place and audience.

However, our ‘fronts’ are various and numerous depending on the social stage upon which we are performing and the varying teams of actors that we are performing with; home, school, work, the pub etc. On these social stages we take on roles to manage the impressions we give off in order to ‘fit in’ and achieve our own personal goals.

Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves, which involves concealing a number of aspects of a performance – such as the effort which goes into putting on a front and typically hiding any personal profit we will gain from a performance/ interaction.”

In any given social setting we must be on our guard not to let the performance slip or give away our true emotions/beliefs/motivations. It is Goffman’s argument that we all practice “expressive control” to keep the performance real and believable. Plenty of things can go wrong to betray the performance: An incorrect choice of words, non-verbal signals, (bodily posture), even the way we dress, (a scruffy appearance, where not appropriate)… Paradoxically, it may be that a scruffy appearance or non-conformist look may give off the desired signals, (Punk Rock genre of the late 1970’s, for example).

Constantly and consistently acting in our social roles is quite difficult and demanding and Goffman suggests that there are ‘back-stage’ and ‘side stage’ areas where we can drop our front and feel comfortable in our own skin; be closer to our ‘true selves’ and prepare our performance for when we are on-stage. Back-stage, we are alone and the audience is irrelevant. Side-stage, we may be one to one with a close friend or family member who is already acquainted with the ‘true self’. Conversely, they are happy that you are acquainted with their ‘true self’ and there is nothing uncomfortable about sharing and expressing true feelings, frankly.

As behavioural planners, the idea of life performance is important in our assessment of channel and target: The way individuals consume or react to the advertised message can be determined by the social setting. Exposure to the message on-stage, back-stage or side-stage might, potentially, receive very different reactions. Hence, an appreciation of where and how the individual receives the message is as important as the message itself… We may NEED a new pair of training shoes but we WANT the most expensive brand because we have social front to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’!

In summary, individuals react and perform, differently, alone or in groups. This reaction is dictated by social setting, the individuals ‘front’ and the audience members. Conformity is the social net that carries group expectations…


Recommended viewing, (Derren Brown: “Remote Control”):

Article Written by

Greg Yates

Account Manager, Total Media Connect

Greg is in his 30th year in the advertising industry; working both in sales and buying. However, he started life working as an actor, back in the early 1980’s. He then became a secondary school teacher, and then joined Total Media North, (now Total Media Connect, of course) in 2008, when there was just Penny and Barry to keep him company!

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